Dating to 1954, Lilac was painted during a period when Spencer was at last enjoying commercial success as an artist. It was painted in the garden of Cliveden View, Spencer's Cookham residence from 1945, so named because it commanded a view of Lord Astor's house, Cliveden. During the 1950s Spencer returned to the subject matter of garden landscapes that his dealers, Tooths, had originally encouraged him to explore in the 1920s and 1930s.
Keith Bell writes, 'he [Spencer] received numerous commissions from the commuter-belt ruralists who increasingly made up the population of the Maidenhead area, and who now took up Spencer as the portraitist of their comfortable life-style ... As usual, Spencer found these commissions a strain, complaining to Myra Baggett, a Cookham resident, in 1957 that it was 'hard enough to get myself to start one of these exacting landscapes'; the difficulties were increased because of his need to paint directly from the subject ... Nevertheless, Spencer clearly took greater care over the commissioned works of the fifties. Without abandoning the thin, even paint surfaces of the pre-war works, he now paid increasing attention to detail in canvases' (K. Bell, op. cit., pp. 300-1)
Spencer's correspondence with Catherine Martineau reveals the pleasure he derived from painting directly from nature. In 1955 he wrote to her, 'I have just done ... a weeny painting of some snowdrops. They were challenging me from my garden and I had to go to them. There was only one small clump but they are fearfully pleased with themselves. You could almost imagine them discussing it: 'He's come right to where we are and he is looking very hard at us. He has gone indoors now - no, he is coming out now with a camp stool - there's something up; he has tied a jumper round his head, for warmth, I suppose; goodness now a sort of school satchel and out comes a furry sack which opens in front, and now a hot water bottle of all things. He has put that in the sack, and now he has put himself in the sack, and he is painting: I knew there was something about us' (see J. Rothenstein (ed.), Stanley Spencer The Man: Correspondence and Reminiscences, London, 1979, p. 133).
In Lilac, Spencer has narrowed the focus to concentrate entirely on this highly scented spring shrub. The effect is one of almost photographic realism, emphasized by the cutting off at the edges of the work. This technique, coupled with the slightly distorted perspective gives an impression of a rendering of a snapshot of nature. The intricate paintwork, however, describes the detailed concentration that Spencer lent to this work.