Arguably the two most important figures in Stanley Spencer’s life were his two wives, Hilda Carline and Patricia Preece, and these two relationships are examined in the Stanley Spencer’s Gallery’s spring exhibition, LOVE, ART, LOSS: The Wives of Stanley Spencer, opening in March 2020.
With works drawn from the gallery’s collection, as well as two loans from the Tate and another from Southhampton City Art Gallery, the show seeks to shed light on the effect the two women had on Spencer’s artistic practice while also examining the love triangle that existed between them.
Spencer was married to Carline when he met Preece in 1929 in Cookham, the Berkshire village where he was born and which was the inspiration for some of his greatest works. His infatuation led to divorce with Carline and marriage with Preece, even though she was living with her lover, the artist Dorothy Hepworth, at the time. Preece took Hepworth on their honeymoon and then refused to consummate their marriage, although she continued to live with Hepworth at Spencer’s former marital home. The artist then moved to London, living in a bedsit in Swiss Cottage, while having to support not just Carline but Preece, too.
Nevertheless, he continued to paint both women, resulting in some of his most powerful work. One of his most famous paintings, Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937), depicts his own and Preece’s body in a frank non-idealised manner, the colours and textures of their flesh juxtaposed with a raw joint of mutton.
Spencer’s raw portrayal of his personal life and use of hyperrealism was unique amongst modern British artists at this time. His unabated self-expression was truly avant-garde and his portraits in particular evoke the conflicting forces at play: love and objectivity, lover and wife, voyeurism and the gaze, the consummated and the unfulfilled.
The works in LOVE, ART, LOSS, which include paintings and intimate studies, attest to the complicated but profound relationships he had with both women. While Preece refused his pleas for a divorce holding out to become Lady Spencer when he was knighted the year of his death in 1959, Spencer’s deep affection for the estranged Carline resumed in the 1940s, particularly through their letters, which Spencer continued even after her death in 1950.