Double Nude Portrait by Sir Stanley Spencer

A few days ago I watched a television programme which looked at twentieth century British artists and My Daily Art Display today looks at one of the paintings which the programme highlighted.  It was a work of art by Sir Stanley Spencer, completed in 1937 and is entitled the Double Nude Portrait, sometimes known as Leg of Mutton Nude, for reasons we will look at later   I like this painting for its honesty but also because of the story behind it.  It is a story of three people: Spencer and his two wives.  In a way, it is a story about love, infatuation, lust and how bad decisions can change lives.

Stanley Spencer

Stanley Spencer was born in 1891 in Cookham, Berkshire, a small village on the River Thames, situated west of London.  Spencer loved Cookham and was to spend most of his life living in this idyllic spot.  He started his art studies at the age of seventeen when he attended the Slade School of Art, which was part of the University College, London, and where he remained for four years.  The First World War intervened and Spencer joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 and from there he transferred to the Berkshire Regiment the following year.  He witnessed the savage conflict in Macedonia but he physically survived the war although mentally scarred by the horrors he encountered whilst in active service.  Sadly, when he returned to Cookham after the war he learnt that his brother Sydney had been killed in the war three months earlier.

Hilda Carline

Whilst Stanley Spencer attended the Slade School of art he became friendly with a fellow student, Sydney Carline who was one of three children of the British painter and illustrator George Carline.  Sydney had two younger artistic siblings, a brother, Richard and a sister Hilda.  Although George Carline actively encouraged his two sons to become artists he never encouraged his daughter to follow the same path and she idled her time at home in Oxford.  Eventually when she was twenty-four her father arranged for her to go to a London art school in Hampstead, which was run by Percyval Tudor-Hart.  Such was her artistic progress that five years later, in 1918, aged twenty-nine, she also was admitted to the Slade School of Art.   It was around this time that Sydney met Hilda when he was invited to a Carline family meal in 1919.  Spencer was immediately smitten by the lovely Hilda and recalled that first meeting saying:

‘…As she came towards me … with the soup, I thought how extraordinary she looked … I could feel my true self in that extraordinary person….I felt she had the same mental attitude to things as I had. I saw myself in that extraordinary person. I saw life with her…..’

Within a few weeks of that first meeting Spencer wrote to Hilda asking to buy one of her paintings.  He wrote:

‘…there is something heavenly in it and the more I look at it, the more I love it..”.

There followed a quite tempestuous courtship, their relationship had its ups and downs and had to withstand many heated arguments.  Having said that, the couple spent a lot of time painting together and Spencer was very complimentary about her artistic talent.  Hilda Carline went on to exhibit many of her works at the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club, an artists’ society, a society which was founded in 1886 in reaction against the conservatism of the Royal Academy.

In 1925 Hilda Carline and Stanley Spencer married at Wangford in North Suffolk, a place which was well known to Hilda as during the First World War she was stationed there as a Land Girl.  By the end of the year Hilda had given birth to a baby girl, Shirin.  During the next few years the couple moved around southern England until January 1932, at which time Stanley could afford to buy Lindworth, a comfortable residence in the centre of Cookham, with its tennis court and large garden.  This was solely his choice as his wife would have preferred to live in central London to be close to the centre of the art world as well as being close to her widowed mother who still lived in Hampstead.  For Stanley, returning to Cookham gave him the chance to recapture the early inspirational ecstasies which he called Cookham-feelings.   Of this special feeling, and of his day in this idyllic setting, he once wrote:

“.. We swim and look at the bank over the rushes.  I swim right in the pathway of the sunlight.  I go home to breakfast thinking as I go of the beautiful wholeness of the day.  During the morning I am visited, and walk about being that visitation.  Now everything seems more definite and to put on a new meaning and freshness.  In the afternoon I set out my work and begin my picture.  I leave off at dusk, fully delighted with the spiritual labour I have done…”

So Stanley Spencer is delighted with his life and Hilda, his wife, is reasonably happy, so what could possibly go wrong with this idyllic lifestyle?   Sadly Stanley like many of us didn’t appreciate what he had.

Patricia Preece

Enter the third person in this story – Patricia Preece.  Patricia had, along with her artist friend and lesbian lover, Dorothy Hepworth, moved to the village of Cookham.  It was in 1929, when Patricia working in the local High Street café first met Stanley Spencer.   Stanley, Hilda and their daughter Shirin, who were visiting the village, came in to the café for lunch.  After a conversation about their love for art Spencer invited the two women to visit the Spencer-Carline house parties and picnics and where she was often courted by Hilda’s brother Richard Carline.  Spencer and Preece had, besides their art, another thing in common, their love of Cookham.  This was in complete contrast to Hilda’s feelings for the village, a situation which saddened her husband.

The relationship between Spencer and Hilda and Patricia Preece started off well, in fact for the first three years they were best of friends and in 1933 Stanley Spencer and Patricia went off together on an artistic assignment in Switzerland with Hilda’s blessing. Richard Carline’s devotion to Patricia ended when he belatedly realised the truth about her relationship with her live-in lover Dorothy.  Patricia now turned her attentions to Stanley Spencer, not for amorous reasons but for the reason of his extensive art world contacts which would help her and Dorothy with their artistic careers and also because she, who was comparatively poor, knew that Stanley was a wealthy man.  Patricia’s financial situation worsened when the knitwear business of the Hepworth family, from which Dorothy received great financial remuneration, went bankrupt.  By 1934, the life of the two women had reached crisis point, their Cookham home was about to be repossessed and they had no money to pay every-day bills.

From l to r.  Hepworth, Preece and Spencer
From l. to r. Hepworth, Preece and Spencer

Stanley Spencer rode to the women’s rescue by suggesting they came to live with Hilda and him.  Hilda was having none of her husband’s rescue plan.  She also became very concerned by her husband’s closer than ever relationship with Patricia.  She took comfort by leaving Cookham for periods of time along with her daughters, going to stay with her mother.  Her absence from the family home was all that Patricia needed to get closer to Stanley.  They would visit each other’s houses even though Patricia’s lover Dorothy was not best pleased with this blossoming relationship.  Stanley and Patricia sadly had different agendas.  For Patricia, Stanley Spencer’s money and contacts were of prime importance whereas for Spencer there was a sexual desire.

Hilda initially fought to save their marriage.   However, when her brother George became seriously ill towards the end of 1932, she went to London to be with him. By 1934, she knew that she could no longer stay with her husband and moved to London.  Spencer became more and more obsessed with the flirtatious Preece, and he showered her with gifts. She persuaded him to divorce his first wife and to sign his house over to her. Patricia Preece married Spencer in 1937 and they were supposed to go on honeymoon in Cornwall.  Preece and Dorothy  went on ahead and in fact Spencer never joined them, remaining in Cookham to finish a painting.  Hilda went to Cookham and, finding a warm welcome from Spencer, spent the night with him. Spencer proposed a ménage à trois with her and Patricia but Hilda would not accept being his mistress, having once been his wife. Preece was shocked by this turn of events and refused thereafter to have sexual relations with him.

Double Nude Portrait by Sir Stanley Spencer (1937)

So that is the story of the three people and now let us look at the painting which Spencer completed in 1937, the year of his second marriage.  It is a stark and explicit painting of the artist and his second wife Patricia Preece.  It was painted at a time when Spencer realised the mistake he had made leaving his first wife Hilda and marrying this femme fatale.  Look at the forlorn depiction he gave himself as he squats before his uncaring wife.  His skin tone is a dull grey.  We are not looking at a man of great virility.  Whereas artists in the past have portrayed themselves or their sitters as virile and glamorous, we see in front of us an unidealized vision of a man.  He stares down at the breasts of his wife but he is not aroused.  Look at his flaccid penis which presumably alludes to his lack of virility and the non-consummation of his marriage.  Look how Spencer has depicted Preece.  She lays there, legs apart with a vacant look on her face.  She does not look at Spencer.  She exudes an air of disinterest.  Spencer’s depiction of his wife acknowledges her rejection of him.  There is no eye contact.  The bodies are not touching.  There is a total disconnect between husband and wife.  You know the marriage is doomed.   There are two other interesting objects in the painting.  Firstly in the foreground we have a leg of mutton (hence the alternative title of the painting) and in the background we have a lit gas fire.  We can presume that the cold leg of mutton somehow symbolises the coldness of his wife as she lies in front of him and it is in contrast to the heat from the fire which is the only thing in the painting which is going to give warmth to the artist.

Would you say the painting is erotic?  Does it have the eroticism of a Schiele painting?  To me, the painting is sexual but not erotic.  It is an honest painting and tinged with sadness.  Should we be sad for the artist or should we simply look upon him as somebody who has rightly got his just deserts?  Could things get any worse for Spencer?  Well, actually the answer to that is yes.

Preece being a gold-digger and Spencer being besotted and somewhat foolish was persuaded to sign his house and financial affairs over to Preece who never left her lover Hepworth.  It is also thought that she had some leverage over Spencer and threatened to expose him and his erotic paintings unless he agreed to the financial terms.   There was no acceptance in the 1930’s for such sexual works.  Patricia  eventually evicted Spencer from the house, and would not grant him a divorce, but continued to receive payments from him. After he was knighted in 1959, she insisted on being styled Lady Spencer and claimed a pension as his widow. Spencer’s fear of being exposed by Preece over his erotic paintings made him keep today’s painting under his bed where it remained until he died.  Spencer lived to regret leaving his first wife and constantly wrote to her and occasionally visited her and their two children.

Sir Stanley Spencer died in 1959, aged 68.  Hilda Carline died in 1950 aged  61.  Patricia Preece died in 1966 aged 72.  Wendy Hepworth died in 1978, aged 80.