Tom's Story - "God was always looking out for me"
October 09 2016
Always keep your smile. That's how I explain my long life.
This is the first time I have completed a major 'text' painting in such a short time! It took just over a month to physically produce the painting, but I have been planning this portrait for a lot longer. When developing an artwork it is a good to have the space to let an idea develop, submerge and to take shape over time. Paintings, often have a life of their own and need to be thought about and nurtured like a close friendship, before they are made.
The Joy of Andre Rieu and a Cuppa!
About three years ago I made friends with Tom, who also attends Irthlingborough Methodist Church. I got to know about his life when visiting his home; we often sit and watch the snooker, game shows, old films, and sometimes his favourite concerts from Andre Rieu. So, we have lots of laughs, tea, biscuits and good conversations. Tom had lots of stories to tell me from his long life and I thought they were worth telling in a painting.
Brushstrokes Tell Stories
Paintings often express, emotion by using emotive brushstrokes and colours. These can help to give you clues about the story behind the image depicted. So, for this portrait I decided to adopt an impressionist colour scheme to create the look of a painted picture, that might suggest something of Tom's personality.
Telling the Story with Printed Words and Collage.
After chatting with Tom about his life I wrote the article below which I have used to paint his portrait. The colour of the text as well as the background was changed many times to form a colour pallet, which was printed off from my PC and then used collage his portrait.
John Thomas Spence
Growing up, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
John Thomas Spence was born the year after the First World War on May 29th, 1919, in Wallsend (at the end of Hadrian’s wall), Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, beneath the towering and magnificent shipyards. In fact the view out of Tom’s bedroom window at the end of Joanne Street would have been something to behold as the ships were built just outside his house.
His father James worked in the shipyards whilst his mother Mary took care of all the children. Back then it was normal to have larger families and Tom had one brother: Jimmy, and five sisters: Betty, Margaret, Hilda, Lily and Ethel.
Prestigious Football Connections in the North.
The beautiful game - football, was a great inspiration to Tom and was also important in the Spence family. Tom’s Uncle, Joe was a professional football player in the 1920s and played for Manchester United and England!
The Great Depression and Migration to Irthlingborough.
After the First World War the ship building industry went into decline as did many industries in the North. Between 1921 and 1923 production was dramatically cut and by the 1930s the shipyards were closing as orders dried up. In 1933 unemployment rose to 2.5 million which was a quarter of the workforce! This had a devastating effect on the Spence family who would have relied on James’ income to support the family. There were no benefits and the dole was cut by 10% in 1931.
Many families in the North East migrated, relocating to comparably wealthier areas in the Midlands. Tom and his siblings were sent away from home, where they could no longer be supported: Tom, at the age of about 14 years old, was sent to live in Irthlingborough, in the county of Northamptonshire; his sisters and brother went to live in London.
These were very distressing times, but when Tom talks about it he will tell you that, “God was looking out for me”. Tom went to stay with an elderly lady in the town and then quickly found a job in boot and shoe industry.
Playing football with Jesus and Making Shoes.
Tom stayed in the town of ‘Artlenock’ as the locals call it, for the rest of his life. He worked in several shoe factories in the area of which there were many - including Norton’s, John Shortland Ltd, John Cave and Sons Ltd, William Green and Sons Ltd, Jacques and Clarke Ltd of Rushden, Knight and Lawrence, John White, C.K Woods, Eaton and Sergeants.
Tom’s great passion was football, and soon after he arrived in Irthlingborough he found out about the local Sunday league. In those days the local Methodist Chapel had a team and Tom was told he could join on the condition he attended church at least once a month. He agreed, and liked it so much that he was sat in the pews every week and has been going ever since.
Love on the Football Pitch!
Life was good! Tom had a job, a place to live and community of friends at church and could play his football. Then on the edge of the pitch he kept noticing a beautiful girl pushing a pram, who was looking after a friend’s baby and came regularly to watch the game.
Hilda and Tom started dating and were eventually married at the Chapel in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second War. Tom and Hilda spent many happy years together living at Crow Hill, running the Sunday school, they enjoyed dancing and doing cross stitch together in the evenings.
Saved from D-day, for a Football Team.
Just before Tom and Hilda were to be married, Neville Chamberlain announced on Sunday, 3rd September, that Britain was at War with Germany. By Thursday of that week, Tom had received his call up papers and after being told the Navy was full, he joined the Royal Corps of Signals or ‘Siggies’ as a radio operator.
On June 6th 1944, The Battle of Normandy or D-Day, Tom was due to make the great crossing as radio operator in a tank. The Royal Signals were to be, the first to land on the beaches. However, as he is keen to point out - “God was looking out for me”. His commanding Officer pulled him out of the assault as he wanted Tom to play in his football team and because he was one of his best players. So, football and the hand of God intervened and may have saved Tom’s life.
Scoring against the Germans and Winning Every Time!
Later, he was sent to Le Havre in Normandy which was largely destroyed following 132 allied bombings. The results of the bombing campaign were appalling:5,000 deaths (including 1,770 in 1944), 75,000 to 80,000 injured, 150 hectares of land razed, 12,500 buildings destroyed. The port was also devastated and some 350 wrecks lie at the bottom of the sea.
Le Havre was liberated by Allied troops on 12 September 1944. During the liberation, Tom recalls being part of the operation to create bridges using the Churchill Bridge layers and Sherman tanks. They met resistance from the Germans and were forced to move further along the river Seine to make the crossing.
After the liberation, he went on to help with the “clean up” in Germany, Hamburg for a year. Tom’s sporting talents once again played their part and many friendly football matches were played against the German soldiers. He proudly recalls “Beating them every time” and insists, “The Germans are lovely people and they were just like us.”
After the war and once discharged, Tom returned home to his wife Hilda and to a long and happy marriage. He continued to play football for Irthlingborough town, work in the shoe industry and attend the Methodist chapel.
Now, at the grand age of 97 Tom has seen the world change beyond recognition. His family divided by poverty and the great depression and his life turned upside down by war. But he considers himself blessed and lucky and will always tell you “I’ve had a good life”. Tom misses his wife Hilda and now spends his time reading the Bible, watching sport and reminiscing about all the adventures and happy times in his long life. He also often visits his family in Lincolnshire and recently went to see his grand-daughter perform in a play in Birmingham.
Tom Spence is a positive, optimistic man who firmly believes that God has always been looking out for him. He has a firm handshake, an equally kind smile, and bright blue glinting eyes. We can all learn a lot from this man.