Spencer: portraits of a failed marriage

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most poignant portraits of the 20th century - depicting artist Stanley Spencer's second wife and painted by the woman she usurped as his muse - is to be seen in public for the first time.

Hilda Carline was a talented painter in her own right, but despite his admitted admiration for her work, Spencer refused to support her efforts to combine her career with that of being his muse and wife, and mother of his children. His later abandonment of her for Patricia Preece, and subsequent demands that she join a menage a trois with them led to a nervous breakdown.

Since Carline died of breast cancer in 1950, most of her landscapes and portraits have been hidden from public view in the family and other private collections.

Now for the first time, an exhibition devoted solely to Carline's work has been prepared. Her portrait of Patricia Preece is among the most notable paintings of the touring show, which opens this week at the Usher Gallery in Lincoln.

"Lady in Green" reveals the evident struggle of Hilda Carline to get under the skin of the woman who came between her and her husband. Preece's heavy features are set in an expression of solemnity but the discomfort in her eyes is palpable.

However, the touring exhibition is set to bring Carline the recognition she has long deserved. The portrait of Patricia Preece was painted at Spencer's insistence and, according to the exhibition's curator, Alison Thomas, Carline "has perhaps concentrated the intensity of her feelings of despair and rejection in this portrait of her rival".

The collection is much more than a revealing insight into the intense and emotional private life of the wife of one of Britain's greatest 20th- century painters: it also confirms Carline as a hugely talented artist in her own right. Her artistic progression is documented in the 72 pictures completed between 1910 and 1946, four years before her death.

Her work is overwhelmingly vibrant and bold and, says Janita Elton of the Usher Gallery. Her portraits "have a tremendous depth while her observational work is just sensational". Ms Elton singles out the lush landscape entitled Downshire Hill Garden as particularly indicative of Carline's attention to detail. At the forefront of the picture, almost hidden by heavy blossom and foliage, is a tiny figure - Carline and Spencer's youngest daughter, Unity.

While there is no doubt that Carline was an opinionated and passionate woman, she was overshadowed, both personally and artistically, by the "indefatigable worker and talker" who became her husband.

Already an established artist before she met Spencer in 1919 when she was 30 and he was 28, she spent her youth within a circle of Hampstead artists that included two of her brothers, Sydney and Richard.

Stanley Spencer was impressed by her work from the beginning: he wrote to her a couple of weeks after their first encounter asking if he could buy a little painting of a group of sheep she had shown him. He wrote that he felt "there is something heavenly in it" and "the more I look at it, the more I love it". He joined Carline's circle and later accompanied her family on a painting exhibition to Bosnia.

The couple married in 1925 and their first daughter, Shirin, was born at the end of the year. However, whereas nothing could keep Spencer from his outsize biblical canvases, Carline suddenly had to cope with the demands of motherhood and was frequently disturbed and unsettled by the ongoing conflict within her relationship with Spencer.

It was nearly four years into her marriage before she did another major painting and in his letters to her, Stanley accuses her of "ceasing to paint and draw". In 1930 she fled to Hampstead in order to find the space she need to develop her work and to give birth to her daughter, Unity.

Spencer began to see Patricia Preece on an almost daily basis when he and Carline moved to his childhood home of Cookham in Berkshire in 1932. Carline later came to believe that Patricia Preece's growing closeness to her husband was motivated more by money rather than personal attraction, since Preece was already involved in a lesbian relationship.

At first overwhelmed by feelings of despair about her marriage, Carline then decided to fight for its survival. However, when her brother George became seriously ill towards the end of 1932, she went to London to be with him. She was never to live permanently with Spencer again.

By the time Carline finished her portrait of Preece in 1934, she knew that she could no longer stay with her husband and she moved to London. She tried to make sense of the breakdown of her marriage through her art but she quickly became depressed.

Despite struggling to become emotionally and artistically independent of her husband, she was hurt by his attempts to persuade her to join a menage a trois with Preece, his new wife. Battles over maintenance followed and a series of events in the early years of the Second World War led to Carline's breakdown in 1942.

During her stay in hospital she began to rebuild her relationship with Spencer, who was a frequent visitor. However, she was diagnosed with cancer in 1947 and never regained her former strength.

According to Janita Elton, Stanley Spencer is usually mentioned in the same breath as Patricia Preece, in spite of the fact that his second marriage in 1937 was probably never consummated.

"Hilda's work became subsumed by her husband who was quite a powerful character," says Ms Elton. "But, despite his marriage to Patricia Preece, Hilda remained the love of his life and he continued to write to her after her death."