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‘Love, Art, Loss: The Wives of Stanley Spencer’ at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham

20 August 2021

Susan Gray reviews an exhibition shedding light on the women in an artist’s life and paintings

© Estate Stanley Spencer & Bridgeman Images, London. Courtesy Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stanley Spencer, Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 66cm. More images below and in the gallery

Stanley Spencer, Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 66cm. More images below and in the gallery

THE latest exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, in Berkshire, sets out to examine the artist’s relationship with women, particularly his two wives, Hilda Carline and Patricia Preece. The curator, Amanda Bradley, wants to move beyond the soap opera of Spencer’s love life, in which he desired a simultaneous marital relationship with two women, one of whom was gay, and ended up with neither, to a more nuanced and less judgemental exploration of his personal life.

The public view of Spencer as a sex maniac is wide of the mark. Bradley points out: “Stanley had very few meaningful relationships with women.” The exhibition “Love, Art, Loss: The Wives of Stanley Spencer” also continues the development in art history, seen in last year’s National Gallery Gauguin portraits and Dora Maar at the Tate, of giving voice and autobiography to the women who have stared out silently from the canvas for years. Drawings of Elsie, the Spencers’ domestic help, and a self-portrait of Dorothy Hepworth, Preece’s partner, are also on display.

At the centre of the gallery’s ground floor is Portrait of Patricia Preece (1933), painted a year after Spencer returned to Cookham from painting the Sandham Memorial Chapel, with its scenes of soldiers rising from graves at the resurrection. This pivotal painting shows Preece’s loosely clothed torso filling the picture plane, possibly as a metaphor for Spencer’s all-consuming obsession.

There is more than a nod to German Expressionism in her exaggerated thick-set figure, the angular treatment of her face and collarbone, the jagged planes of light and shadow and flesh tones, and her oddly angled hands. In the background, we see the gramophone that Preece loved to dance to when she visited the Spencer family home Lindworth.

Near by, a pencil-on-paper drawing from a 1943-44 Scrapbook, Patricia and Gramophone shows the sensuous, vibrant, vivacious Preece of public imagination dancing in her lingerie, gesturing with a cigarette.

Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill (1935) is another compositionally striking work, depicting the back of Preece’s head, and exposed nape of the neck, wearing a diamond-and-amethyst necklace that Spencer had given her, one of his many extravagant gifts. He said that the purple precious stones chimed in with the purple thistles in the meadow around her.

Preece’s figure occupies only the lower third of the picture, while the landscape’s intensity of detail in the foreground gradually pares down to the white sky. Bradley says that perspective is where Spencer’s genius stands out, likening his work to Giovanni Bellini, and the Old Masters’ ability to give landscapes an emotional quality.

© Estate Hilda Carline & DACS, London. Courtesy TateHilda Carline, Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas, 74.9 x 57.8cms

Spencer married Preece in May 1937, days after extracting a divorce from Hilda, mother of his daughters Shirin and Unity. Absent from this exhibition, but looming large in visitors’ imaginations, is the celebrated Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937), known also as “The Leg of Mutton Nude”. Now that Spencer approaches the status of a “national treasure”, it is bracing to be reminded how shocking his life paintings, with their stark realism and psychological insights, appeared at the time. According to Bradley, these works’ “revelatory internal angst” had the impact that Tracey Emin has now.

The upper floor of the exhibition is devoted to works that followed the breakdown of Spencer’s second marriage in 1938-39, when he was exiled from Cookham and found himself on the eve of the Second World War living in a bedsit in Swiss Cottage, London, paying two sets of alimony.

Domestic Scenes: At the Chest of Drawers (1936) shows an idealised Stanley and Hilda choosing clothes for the wedding feast. Collars spill out in an abstract manner, reminiscent of the Italian Futurists. The Woolshop (1939) has a similarly mannered dynamism. Animated skeins of wool frame a composite face fusing Daphne Charlton, Spencer’s next lover, and Hilda.

The Marriage at Cana, Bride and Bridegrooms (1953) is a lithograph transposing the New Testament story on to the artist’s own life, with Stanley and Hilda as the bride and groom. Hilda is smoothing her wedding dress. The scene is embellished history, as Spencer got cold feet when he saw Hilda having a wedding-dress fitting, and insisted that they be married in ordinary clothes, three years later in 1925, at Wangford, in Suffolk, where Hilda served as a Land Girl.

Comparing these idealised images of the artist’s first wife, some incorporated into works for Spencer’s never-realised Church House project (with side chapels for each of his wives), with the Hilda Carline, Self-Portrait (1923), which opens the exhibition, is revelatory.

A year into her engagement, Carline confidently portrays herself in her Hampstead studio, in yellow hat, light-blue dress, and glinting carmine necklace, a Persian present from her older brother. The necklace is in a display case, adding to the tangible sense of a talented artist at the start of her career. Bradley describes the self-portrait as “the highlight of the show, and the highlight of Hilda’s oeuvre”. We next see Hilda eight years later in Spencer’s 1931 drawing Hilda with Hair Down, resembling Jim Morrison from The Doors, after a particularly bad trip. “Haunted” is Bradley’s description.

Towering above the autobiographical works is the giant Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta (1925-29), depicting Christ in a basketwork chair preaching to the villagers. The canvas was intended for river aisle of the Church House project. It shows the view from the public house The Ferry, by Cookham Bridge, and seems a perfect invitation to take advantage of the gallery’s location, and head for the pub by the river. Here, the tangle of Carline’s Christian Science and struggles with depression, and Spencer’s devoted letters to her, continuing even after her death from cancer in 1950, set against Preece’s gregarious, money-grabbing survivor, who died as Lady Spencer in 1966, may start to make human, flawed sense.


“Love, Art, Loss: The Wives of Stanley Spencer” runs at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, High Street, Cookham, until 31 October. Phone 01628 531092. Pre-booking not necessary. stanleyspencer.org.uk

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