Love, art, loss: The Wives of Stanley Spencer

LOVE, ART LOSS: The Wives of Stanley Spencer

Stanley Spencer Self-Portrait, 1923. Photo credit Stanley Spencer Gallery. Image copyright Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights reserved Bridgeman Images 2020

A new exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery is set to examine the unconventional love life of Cookham’s most famous export when normal business resumes following lockdown.

‘LOVE, ART, LOSS: The Wives of Stanley Spencer’ - which will go on show as soon as the gallery is able to re-open its door - is a collection of works which includes paintings depicting Stanley’s first wife, Hilda Carline, and his second wife, Patricia Preece, who was a lesbian.

The show of 28 works from the gallery’s collection, as well as two loans from the Tate, and another from Southampton City Art Gallery, seeks to shed light on the effect the two women had on Spencer’s artistic practice.

Largely an autobiographical artist, Stanley was as inspired by his wives as he was Cookham, where he was born in 1891 and had an extremely happy childhood.

He was much loved by his parents and was home schooled by his sisters before he went on to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

In 1919 Stanley met Hilda, also a former student at the Slade, and they married in 1925.

They welcomed their first daughter, Shirin, later that year and in 1930, another daughter, Unity, was born.

Photograph of Stanley and Hilda with their daughter Shirin and other relatives, 1929. Photo credit: Stanley Spencer Gallery.

Stanley, along with Hilda and Shirin, met Patricia in a Cookham teashop in 1929.

Another former student of the Slade, she is understood to have been the opposite of Hilda, described as glamorous, elegant, socially sophisticated and direct.

Patricia became Stanley’s obsession, and he went on to paint her in a number of nudes which were as avant garde in the 1930s as his romantic ideals.

“Stanley always made it clear, that ideally he wanted two wives,” said Amanda Bradley, curator of the exhibition and trustee of the gallery in High Street.

“He wanted to stay married to Hilda and have Patricia, but obviously Hilda wasn’t having any of that.”

Patricia is said to have personified Stanley's ‘new sexual ideals', sex being one of three inextricable strands which prevailed throughout his lifetime's work.

“In his mind, religion, sex and Cookham were all intermingled and each one fed off the other, and inspired the other,” said Amanda.

“For him sex was a holy thing, and Cookham was a holy think and vice versa.”

The catalogue about the exhibition written by Amanda reads: “Spencer felt a reconciliation of ‘old feelings’ for Cookham and ‘new feelings’ of exaltation in Patricia who personified his ‘new sexual ideals’.

“The moment acquired a religious resonance for the artist.”

The chance encounter marked the beginning of the end for Stanley’s marriage to Hilda, who thought it sensible to accompany Stanley and Patricia on trips.

However, when Hilda began to spend more time in London to care for her ill brother, Patricia took the opportunity to seduce Stanley.

She would visit him everyday at Lindworth, his marital home, and when Stanley would go to see Patricia, he would find her only partly dressed.

This is despite Patricia having a partner, Dorothy Hepworth, whose wealthy family had financed the pair until they became bankrupt in 1930, leaving the couple penniless.

‘I think money was a big motivation,” said Amanda.

“Stanley at that point was quite a catch in some ways, he was famous, he was a very eminent artist, and Patricia and Dorothy were both artists, and she thought it might pep-up their careers too.”

After Christmas in 1932 Hilda never resided at Lindworth, again.

Patricia had taken up the role of Stanley’s business manager, a position that enabled her to prevent him seeing any correspondence from Hilda, and Stanley had put Lindworth in Patricia’s name.

She sat for Stanley for the first time in 1933, fully clothed, but next came a series of ‘very explicit nude paintings’ of Patricia, and also of her and Stanley.

In May 1937 Stanley divorced Hilda, and four days later he married Patricia, but it was not to last.

Photograph of Spencer’s marriage to Patricia at Maidenhead, best man James Wood on right, Dorothy Hepworth on left.Photo credit: Stanley Spencer Gallery. 

On their wedding night, because Stanley had a commission to finish in Cookham, Dorothy accompanied Patricia to Cornwall, the couple's honeymoon destination, and Stanley spent the night with Hilda.

When Stanley arrived in Cornwall he confessed the infidelity to Patricia, giving her the perfect excuse not to continue with their marriage.

Amanda said: “I think Patricia sort of made up this construct so that he would be forced into Hilda’s arms on their wedding night and that gave her the perfect excuse not to sleep with him and that was that.”

Holding out to become Lady Spencer when Stanley was knighted in 1959, Patricia would not grant Stanley a divorce and claimed a pension as his widow until her death, aged 72 in 1966.

She is buried in Cookham cemetery with Dorothy.

Why Stanley proceeded in pursuing and marrying Patricia when she had a lover and partner in Dorothy is a mystery.

“He either knew and chose to ignore it, or didn’t know, no-one's found anything that he’s written about it so we don’t really know,” said Amanda who believes he ‘certainly regretted it’.

After the breakdown of his marriage to Patricia Stanley, he began work on a collection of works called ‘The Beatitudes of Love’ (1937-8).

Amanda describes the series as ‘ugly people falling in love with each other’ featuring ‘stark lighting, gnarled hands and sagging flesh’.

She says Stanley’s paintings in this series are an ‘absolute expression of himself and what he was feeling’ at a time when his fellow artists were moving towards abstraction.

The paintings have a similar style to new objectivism, a style which originated in Germany in the run up to the Second World War, which has a ‘really mean streak to it’ and tells the story of a nasty underworld.

Despite the stylistic resemblance, the feeling behind the Beatitudes of Love and new objectivism could not be more different.

The exhibition’s catalogue includes Stanley’s explanation for the unattractive figures in ‘The Beatitudes of Love: Contemplation’, 1938, which features in the show.

The Beatitudes of Love: Contemplation, 1938. Photo credit: Stanley Spencer Gallery. Image copyright Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights reserved Bridgeman Images 2020.

He said: “I love them from within outwards and whatever that outward appearance may be it is an exquisite reminder of what is loved within, no matter what that exterior appearance may be.”

Overall Amanda says ‘it’s very hard to pigeon hole’ Stanley’s style because he ‘remained resolutely his own man’.

Amanda says that before Stanley there had been ‘very few artists who ‘exposed their inner mental being’.

“He was a true individual spirit and that’s what, for me, makes him stand out,” she said.

“He had this very eccentric singular vision and a very singular way of painting and I think he was completely seminal in influencing many artists after him.”

These include the artists Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, and Grayson Perry.

Following on from Beautitudes of Love Spencer painted a series of works called ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ (1939-54) which is a reflection on his failed marriages.

"There’s a real sense of withdrawing into himself trying to come to terms with this, it must have been devastating for him,” said Amanda.

He had depression in this period and in the 1940s Hilda too succumbed to the condition and was admitted to a mental institution for nine months.

The catalogue reads: “During this time, she and Spencer resumed a deep affection and closeness, particularly through their letters.

“When she died of cancer in 1950, aged 61, Spencer continued to write to her, their union elevated to the spiritual, rather than the physical.”

A ‘complete and utter all-consuming passion’ which never wavered for Stanley was his love for Cookham.

Amanda said: “He was so physically and emotionally attached to Cookham that when he was away he found it very hard to paint.”

Stanley’s insistence of travelling to ‘his heaven on earth’ every day when studying at the Slade earned him the namesake, ‘Cookham’.

“It was absolutely seminal to his artistic output and his emotional wellbeing, I mean it was literally everything to him,” said Amanda.

Stanley died in 1959 aged 68.

Stanley Spencer Self-Portrait, 1923Photo credit: Stanley Spencer Gallery. Image copyright Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights reserved Bridgeman Images 2020.

To find out more about him go to the Stanley Spencer Gallery website.

The exhibition will be available to view as soon as the art gallery re-opens its doors.

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