When Stan Met Pat…

Do we need to reassess the reputation of Stanley Spencer’s second wife Patricia Preece?

Dorothy Hepworth, The Green Divan
Dorothy Hepworth, The Green Divan. This painting, showing Patricia reclining at Moor Thatch, was bought by Stanley from the Lefevre exhibition in 1935.

Is there a more maligned 20th-century British artist than Patricia Preece? Her charge sheet, if you believe most published accounts of her life, is extensive.

Preece, received wisdom has it, was a manipulative Slade graduate who passed off her live-in lesbian lover’s paintings as her own, and ruined Stanley Spencer’s life by muscling into his affections, making him divorce his beloved first wife Hilda, then booting him out of his own home after inveigling him into marrying her. And all this without ever consummating the marriage!

What’s more, Stanley Spencer has become something of a national treasure, a charmingly bonkers visionary whose paintings of Christ wandering round his home village of Cookham have come to define, in a strange, spiritual way, our halcyon-days, grannies-on-bicycles image of semi-rural England between the wars.

A hiss and a boo, then, for Saint Stanley’s nemesis? Not so quick. Soon to be published is a monograph on Patricia Preece (and therefore also on her life-long partner Dorothy Hepworth), which accompanies the spring exhibition on the same subject at Charleston in Lewes. I understand this book, while concentrating on Preece/Hepworth’s art, will offer a reappraisal of the Spencer-Preece relationship, suggesting that Stanley Spencer’s bizarrely compulsive, fetishist personal philosophy and coercive sex drive rendered him the architect of his own downfall. Ms Preece’s actions, meanwhile, were those of a woman who, having come under his spell, and having been traumatized by his unwanted physical attention, was understandably trying to protect herself and her life partner from being dragged down with him.

The book, The Secret Art of Dorothy Hepworth, Also Known as Patricia Preece was written by the art historian Denys J Wilcox, who has had access to Hepworth’s extensive archives. Patricia loved and lived with Dorothy Hepworth for 48 years, between 1918 and her death in 1966 (notwithstanding the fact that she never divorced Spencer, and even took on a title – Lady Spencer – after his knighthood, by which time they were completely estranged).

Stanley met Patricia in Cookham, in the summer of 1929, while she was working for an afternoon in a tearoom, as a favour for the two old ladies who ran it. Patricia and Dorothy, after spending four years together in Paris, had taken on a cottage – ‘Moor Thatch’ – near the High Street. Dorothy’s father owned a hosiery business in Leicester, and had paid for the house (as well as financing their French adventure). Dorothy and Patricia were ‘companions’. The former was very mannish, sporting an Eton crop and favouring slacks over dresses; the latter was feminine in equal measure: slim, elegant and fashionably dressed.

Stanley and his wife Hilda (also an artist) were then living in Burghclere, in Hampshire, where he was completing a massive commission painting murals depicting his WW1 experiences, in the purpose-built Sandham Memorial Chapel. His parents lived, virtually penniless, in a house a few doors down from the tearoom, called Fernlea, and he and Hilda were paying a sixweek visit, with their baby daughter. Spencer had grown up in Cookham, and still considered it to be his spiritual home. The village had been the setting for much of his work. By now he had established a sterling reputation, with his 1927 painting The Resurrection, Cookham hailed by the Times, after a solo show that year at the Goupil Gallery, as ‘the most important picture painted by any English artist in the present century.’

In the Cookham tearoom, the three artists soon ascertained that they had all studied at the Slade – Patricia at the same time as Hilda, though they were never friends – and when Patricia was relieved of her serving duties, she invited them over to Moor Thatch to meet Dorothy, and to see ‘their’ work.

Patricia, by this time, had all but given up painting. She had studied art at Brighton, as well as the Slade, but having realised she would never achieve greatness, she dedicated her time to other matters, dabbling in selling bric-a-brac and antiques. Dorothy, on the other hand, was a dedicated and prolific artist, who had taken to signing her work using Patricia’s name, as the couple understood that the latter, being a more flamboyant figure, would be more likely to attract attention from dealers and galleries. The reticent Dorothy, on completing a painting (largely portraits and interiors, in a figurative, modernist style), would habitually take a photograph of Patricia standing in front of it. She was, it seems, completely uninterested in personal acclaim.

Back to that first afternoon: one imagines that most of the conversation came from Stanley Spencer, who tended to dominate social situations. He was good at flight-of-fancy impressions, one of which, according to Patricia’s memoir, was performed to illustrate his hatred of Brighton beach, imitating ‘the snores of a stout man in his braces in a deckchair, a newspaper over his head, alternating with the sound of the waves coming in’. He was also fond of delivering philosophical stream-of-consciousness monologues, largely concerning the visionary nature of his art. This was a man who liked to talk about himself.

Stanley had been a 32-year-old virgin when he met Hilda, and sex had been a revelation, which he associated with spirituality and incorporated into the religious paintings he set in Cookham. His wife was a rather austere figure, taken up by a strong belief in the tenets of Christian Science, who produced rigid, academic paintings. They had been married for seven years.

Dorothy Hepworth self portrait
Dorothy Hepworth with a self portrait in 1929, the year she and Patricia met Stanley.

One can only surmise from his subsequent behaviour that Stanley was completely smitten by Patricia Preece from the off. He soon began a long courtship, facilitated by a return to Cookham, with Hilda and his (by now) two daughters to a semi-detached seven-bedroom house just off the High Street, named Lindworth, which they bought in January 1932. The Spencers were fairly well off during this period, enjoying the services of a live-in maid, Elsie. Life in the Preece-Hepworth household, however, was rather more precarious. Dorothy’s father’s hosiery business had been hit by the Great Depression, art sales were slow, and existence was very much hand-to-mouth.

Not that Patricia looked poor. Stanley started spending more and more time with his new flame, paying her to sit for him, and compulsively buying her expensive clothes and jewellery on trips to Maidenhead and London. The artist began to see Patricia as the embodiment of Cookham, evoking the wildflower meadows he had wandered as a child, and which he held to be so holy. ‘You seem to have relieved me from some awful muddle in my mind,’ he wrote to her. ‘I feel ennobled and strengthened since I have known you. When Dante came out of Hell and arrived at the grassy slopes of Purgatory, Virgil placed his hands on the wet grass and washed the grime off Dante’s face. This is the effect you have on me.’ When Stanley was invited by a patron to spend some time in Switzerland painting landscapes, he asked Patricia to come and join them, rather than Hilda. She agreed.

Stanley and Patricia on their honeymoon
Stanley and Patricia on their honeymoon in St. Ives in 1937.

Patricia, it seems, was also taken with Stanley, though her dedication to Dorothy Hepworth was never in question. At least she says as much in her memoir A Private View of Stanley Spencer (published after her death, ghost-written by Louise Collis). They had sex for the first time soon after returning from Switzerland, although, as one might imagine, given Patricia’s sexuality, it doesn’t seem to have been a pleasurable experience for either partner. In Spencer’s words: ‘As to giving herself to me, she removed all of herself into her head, which she had buried into a pillow, and sub-let the rest of her shifting body… at high rental.’ The famous 1937 painting Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife, which features the couple naked, but physically apart, with a leg of cold mutton on the bed, almost certainly alludes to this period: Spencer’s paintings were often responses to meaningful experiences he’d had years before putting brush to canvas.

In her posthumous memoir, Patricia reveals Stanley’s sexual proclivities to be fetishistic: he was turned on, she suggested, by ‘wearing women’s clothes, dancing naked in front of the mirror, and toilet smells’. After its publication in 1971, the book was serialised in the Sunday Mirror. Spencer’s reputation has been restored by largely sympathetic coverage in the media since then, sanctioned by his children, including a 2001 David-Bowie-narrated edition of Omnibus, and a more recent BBC documentary Stanley and His Daughters.

1935 was a big year in Stanley and Patricia’s budding relationship. Patricia made a proposal: she would take over the financial side of Stanley’s art business, allowing him to concentrate on painting, and Hilda to spend more time in London with her invalid brother and Christian Science commitments. As part of the deal, Patricia suggested that the deeds to Lindworth should be made over to her. Stanley thought it a splendid idea. Hilda was reluctant to agree, but she was persuaded. Once the transfer was completed, Patricia and Dorothy’s financial security was achieved.

There were mixed fortunes for Stanley and Patricia, that year, in the art world. Of the five paintings Stanley submitted to the 1935 edition of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, two were rejected, both spiritual figure compositions featuring Stanley’s father: The Dustman, and St Francis and the Birds. This was a rare rebuff for an RA member: Stanley resigned in disgust, and withdrew all five paintings, which were later exhibited privately by his dealer Dudley Tooth. Meanwhile Patricia was granted a solo exhibition at the prestigious Lefevre Galleries in St James’s, London. Duncan Grant wrote a glowing introduction in the catalogue, and many of her art-world friends came to the private view, none of them suspecting that she had played no part whatsoever in the painting process. Those buying ‘her’ works included Virginia Woolf, Kenneth Clark… and Stanley Spencer, who (knowing the secret identity of its creator) purchased a portrait of Patricia, titled The Green Divan (pg 73). Dorothy, presumably, melted into the background, as was her wont.

After a fair amount of persuasion, Hilda granted Stanley a divorce, which was finalised on May 25, 1937. On May 29 of the same year – four days later – Stanley married Patricia at Maidenhead Register Office in front of two witnesses, Dorothy and Stanley’s friend Jas Wood. There’s a photo of the four-strong wedding party on the High Street: Stanley, the shortest figure in the group, is wearing a big felt hat that makes him look rather daft. The groom had a grand plan in his head, the unfolding of which was soon to have disastrous consequences.

The couple had arranged a six-week honeymoon in St Ives, to which Dorothy had been invited to come along: it was billed as something of a painting holiday. Stanley had a commission to complete in Cookham, so Patricia and Dorothy set off without him, expecting him to join them a couple of days later. The day they left, Stanley sent a letter to Hilda, who was at her family home in Hampstead. They had some affairs to settle: would she come over before he went to Cornwall? She travelled up the next day, and he persuaded her to stay over, and, what’s more, to have sex with him, announcing that he wanted, henceforth, to have two wives, Hilda and Patricia, and they should all live together at Lindworth. He was an artist: it was his right to have an unconventional domestic set up, if it fired his artistic passion, which it would.

Hilda, it seems, having succumbed to his seduction, refused to countenance his notion of this permanent menage à trois, and returned to Hampstead. Stanley completed his commission, and made his way to the holiday cottage in Cornwall. Denys J Wilcox has unearthed from Dorothy’s archives that Patricia was in on Stanley’s threesome plan: in as far as she was happy to be paraded around functions with him, as a trophy wife, and to help deal with his affairs, as long as she didn’t have to have sex with him.

According to Dorothy’s diaries, Stanley was not satisfied with this compromise and forced her to consummate the marriage in St Ives, in a brutal manner, whereby Patricia suffered

Dorothy Hepworth, Patricia Preece, c1925, pencil
Dorothy Hepworth, Patricia Preece, c1925. Pencil.

‘amorous injuries’. Patricia spent the remainder of the holiday sleeping in her own room, and when the three returned to Cookham, she stayed at Moor Thatch with Dorothy, while Stanley moved back to Lindworth alone. From that day on, Dorothy became extremely protective of Patricia, making sure that she was never put in a potentially compromising position with Stanley: they never slept under the same roof again.

For many years after their ‘honeymoon’, Stanley and Patricia continued to maintain a cordial relationship, with the latter receiving a monthly maintenance payment. In 1938 Spencer was persuaded to move out of Lindworth, into rented accommodation in the village, so that Patricia could let it, sharing the money between them. He was granted the use of the outhouse as a studio. In this period, he was encouraged by Patricia to paint landscapes, for which there was an eager market, rather than the spiritual flights of fancy, set in Cookham, his less-than-lucrative passion.

Stanley moved out of Cookham in 1940, but returned frequently to his home village, visiting Moor Hatch when he did. In 1950, when Stanley unexpectedly filed for divorce, on the grounds of desertion, Patricia’s lawyers advised her to refuse, and that it was in her best interests not to be in contact with him again. Hilda, who had been committed to a lunatic asylum in 1942, died in the same year. Stanley moved back to his family home, Fernlea, in 1958, when it unexpectedly came back onto the market. He was already ill with cancer, and Patricia, by this time, had become something of a recluse. Though they lived not 100 yards apart, it seems they never met.

On December 15, 1959, the journalist Paul Hopkins knocked on the door of Moor Thatch, Cookham. This was fully 24 hours after Stanley Spencer’s death in hospital in nearby Cliveden, after a long illness. Hopkins, writing under the pseudonym Henry Fielding, in his weekly gossip column for the Daily Herald, subsequently reported: ‘The second wife of the rebel artist Sir Stanley Spencer did not know he had died until I broke the news yesterday… Eton-cropped Miss Dorothy Hepworth came to the door in slacks and said ‘Sir Stanley? Dead? We did not know. This comes as a great shock’.

Stanley Spencer’s reputation had continued to grow after the war, and he died a relatively wealthy man. A posthumous retrospective at the Royal Academy in 1981 further upped his standing in the canon, and his paintings now go for stratospheric prices at auction. ‘Patricia Preece’, on the other hand, was soon forgotten as an artist. Lady Spencer died in 1966, at home in Moor Thatch. Dorothy continued living alone in the house until her death, 14 years later. She kept on painting, of course: and she continued to sign those paintings ‘Patricia Preece’.

Words by Alex Leith

Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: An Untold Story is on at Charleston in Lewes. It is the first exhibition to show Hepworth’s work as her own, and offers a compelling survey of her remarkable talent, including her portraiture and still lifes. They can be seen alongside Preece’s early drawings from the Slade, archive images, and letters, plus Spencer’s paintings where Preece is the subject.

All images courtesy of the estate of Dorothy Hepworth.