John Spencer obituary

Other lives: Art teacher and teacher trainer whose passion was his painting

My father, John Spencer, who has died aged 95 of a pulmonary embolism, was an art teacher, a prolific painter, a lifelong learner and a quietly devout Christian. His career was spent as a teacher and teacher-trainer, inspiring a generation of students, but his passion was his painting.

Born in Windsor, to Ernest Spencer, a gas fitter, and Helen (nee Brain), as a baby John suffered from intussusception and had an intestinal operation no baby had previously survived. His mother was told to “order a coffin”.

After Windsor County boys’ school, John went to Wimbledon School of Art to study drawing and painting, then took his art teacher’s diploma at Reading University. His first job, in 1946, was as head of art at Rugeley grammar school. A year later he moved to East Ham grammar in London. His best teaching years, though, were spent at Vyners school, Ickenham, where pupils still wear the school badge he designed. The school’s ethos chimed with his passion to inspire, not to test and grade – still a battleground in the profession today.

He went into teacher education in 1968 at Shoreditch College, and when government cuts led to redundancy in 1980, he refused to retire. He became chief examiner for an exam board, published The Art History Study Guide (1996) for students, and taught himself to use an etching press.

In the 1970s he took a diploma in applied behavioural science at North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University) and then did a PhD at Manchester University in medieval art, graduating in 1985. This led to a family camping “grand tour” in France and Italy, seeking out medieval treasures.

Dad’s successes concealed his dyslexia. Though it led to challenges, it also enabled him to think creatively and to be a problem-solver – sometimes Heath Robinson-style.

Throughout his life, he painted prolifically in his studio at home in Reading and then, after 2008, in Salisbury. He had seven solo exhibitions between 1964 and 2020 and regularly contributed to mixed exhibitions. When an exhibition of his work was held in 2020 in Highgate, the art historian Richard Cork wrote for the Lauderdale House notes that he recognised mysticism in John’s painting, describing it as “rejoicing in the defiant persistence of life”. “Spencer is dedicated to exploring the essential compulsive magic of existence on earth,” he said.

In 1975 John married Shirley (nee Jeremy). They enjoyed bird watching, butterfly chasing and latterly worshipping at the cathedral in Salisbury near their home. He is survived by Shirley, three children, Celia, Martin and me, from his first marriage, to Avril Goodwin, which ended in divorce, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His eldest son, Paul, died in 1999.

Roz Spencer

The GuardianTramp

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