Following the completion of his war painting, Travoys with Wounded Soldiers Arriving at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, 1919 (Bell no. 30, Imperial War Museum, London) for the Ministry of Information, Spencer returned to his pre-war preoccupation with religious paintings set in the familiar surroundings of his home village of Cookham. Spencer had refused to paint two further pictures for the Ministry on the grounds that he had lost his 'Balkanish feelings'; moreover he was anxious that the sense of perfect bliss which had pervaded his painting activities before the war had been badly disrupted by his wartime experiences and enforced absence from the source of his painterly inspiration.
Despite this sense of anxiety Spencer succeeded in producing a number of notable religious paintings set in Cookham, including The Last Supper, 1920 (Bell no. 34, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham) (see lot 116), Christ Carrying the Cross (Bell no. 38, Tate, London), Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, 1921 (Bell no. 70, City Art Galleries, Leeds), culminating in 1926 with his masterpiece, The Resurrection, Cookham (Bell no. 116, Tate, London).
The present version of The Last Supper was painted in 1922, together with three other small compositions, Washing Peter's Feet (Bell no. 94, Tullie House, City Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle) (fig. 2), The Robing of Christ (Bell no. 92, Tate, London) and The Disrobing of Christ (Bell no. 93, Tate, London) (fig. 1), all of which were intended to serve as predella to a larger painting of The Betrayal (second version) (Bell no. 91, Ulster Museum, Belfast) completed the following year. A series of studies for the polyptych (private collection) show that Washing Peter's Feet and The Last Supper were intended to hang to the left of The Betrayal, with The Disrobing of Christ and The Robing of Christ on the right. However, the Betrayal proved too large to be in keeping with the four predella and the group were never exhibited together. As the Spencer scholar Carolyn Leder observed in the Stanley Spencer Gallery catalogue notes, the proposed use of the traditional predella format and materials, such as oil on wood panel, shows the artist's interest in the religious painting of the early Italian Renaissance. Indeed, Spencer continued to use variations of this format for the rest of his career, notably for the Oratory of All Souls at Burghclere (1927-32), the unrealised Church House and the Shipbuilding on the Clyde series, painted for the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1940-46 (Bell nos. 328a-i, Imperial War Museum, London).
While the polyptych failed to fit together, the four smaller panels, conceived together, were more closely related. Spencer reported to his friend the artist Henry Lamb in a letter of 26 May 1922 from Petersfield: 'I am doing a thing which you will dislike and justly. It belongs to my hosiery department. You will see I had four ideas, two of moments in the Last Supper and two of Christ with the soldiers and they were so consecutive and processional, I had to do them. They came out of their shell so nicely ...' (Tate Gallery Archives, Spencer-Lamb correspondence Tam 11). Subsequently the group were divided, with the Robing of Chirst and the Disrobing of Christ going to the Tate Gallery, while Washing Peter's Feet and The Last Supper were acquired by William Rothenstein for the Carlisle Art Gallery and Mrs Victor Gollancz respectively.
In The Last Supper, Spencer sought to emphasise the sense of 'homeliness' which was an essential part of his conception of religious subjects. In this case, Christ and the disciples are seated on chairs which closely resemble those found in 'Fernlea', the Spencer home in Cookham and which are mirrored in Washing Peter's Feet (fig. 2). Unlike the 1920 Last Supper, where the event takes place in a highly orderly fashion, the foreground is confused, with figures and chairs in disarray following Christ's announcement of his imminent betrayal; beyond, at the lower end of the table, the remaining disciples still lounge comfortably as yet unaware of the drama unfolding nearby.