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Visitor to the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham

Two portraits, recently acquired with Art Fund support for the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, help to tell the story of the artist‘s life.

A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2024 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is delighted that two of Stanley Spencer’s portrait paintings, Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill and the Portrait of Rachel Marjorie Westropp (née Cropper, 1915-2005), have been acquired for the gallery in recent years, and will continue to engage our visitors and inform our exhibitions, thanks to the generosity of Art Fund, its members and the Wolfson Foundation, alongside support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Friends of the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Arts Council England and V&A Purchase Grant Fund. 

Painted in 1935, the earlier of the two, Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, is not so much a portrait – for the sitter is turned away from the viewer, her contorted fingers resting on her shoulder – but is an evocation. For Spencer, for whom the landscape around Cookham was tantamount to a religious experience, this work was about spiritual ecstasy – a fusion of Cookham, his ‘heaven on earth’, with sexual obsession. For him, the two were indistinct. 

Spencer had met the artist Patricia Preece in a Cookham teashop in 1929, five years after his marriage to Hilda Carline (also an artist). He was then living in Burghclere (about an hour’s drive away), where he was painting his iconic murals, commemorating his experiences of the First World War, at Sandham Memorial Chapel. When Spencer sawPreece, he felt a reconciliation of ‘old feelings’ for Cookham and ‘new feelings’ of exaltation in her, as she personified Spencer’s ‘new sexual ideals’.  

In this picture, the landscape surrounding Cookham became a foil for and also a metaphor of Spencer’s obsession. It is a compositionally captivating work, in which the intensity of detail in the foreground gradually reduces to the white sky at the top of the canvas.   

Stanley Spencer, Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935
Courtesy Stanley Spencer Gallery. © Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights reserved 2024/Bridgeman Art Library

According to Preece, Spencer had originally intended to paint a larger work, showing her six or eight times in the nude. Spencer wrote how the diamonds and amethysts around her neck chimed with the purple thistles in the meadow around her. He liked to lavish Preece with gifts of lingerie and jewellery, bought on shopping trips to Maidenhead, an event that he immortalised in one of his sketches, with a God-like figure shown prostrate at Preece’s feet.  

Preece was very different to Spencer’s wife: glamorous, elegant, socially sophisticated, direct and supposedly entranced by Stanley’s monologues. She sat for him for the first time in 1933, this time fully clothed, but there followed – between 1935 and 1937 – a series of nudes, staggering in their modernity. The works are an unsettling combination of Titian and Otto Dix; the flesh is not luxuriant, but instead almost surgical and dispassionate.  

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Divorce was all but forced upon Carline, and Spencer married Preece only days later, on 29 May 1937. A photograph shows the couple with Spencer’s best man, the artist Jas Wood, and another artist, Dorothy Hepworth, Preece’s life-long companion. It was Hepworth with whom Preece in fact ‘honeymooned’ in Cornwall, Spencer staying behind to finish a commission, returning that night to his ex-wife’s embraces. Spencer appears to have been oblivious to Preece’s sexuality, blinded by his infatuation (tellingly, Richard Carline, Hilda’s brother – who had also been taken in by Preece’s glamour – was perfectly aware where her preferences lay). Not surprisingly, the relationship was doomed.  

Stanley Spencer, Portrait of Rachel Marjorie Westropp (née Cropper, 1915-2005), 1959
Courtesy Stanley Spencer Gallery. © Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights reserved 2024/Bridgeman Art Library

It is a misconception to believe that Spencer was promiscuous. He is not known to have had many love affairs, and was instead drawn towards maternal figures, who would feed and nurture him during impoverished years (two sets of alimony was an expensive business).

One such woman was Rachel Westropp. This portrait – the culmination of a lifetime’s observation of humanity – was painted as a birthday present for the sitter’s husband, the vicar at Holy Trinity, Cookham. The church in the background not only indicates the role of the sitter as a vicar’s wife, but also – more poignantly – it was the resting place of her daughter Anna, who had died only two months before, aged 11. The stark tonality of the painting, executed just before spring had broken in Cookham – an eloquent pathetic fallacy – is enforced by the grief etched on the sitter’s face.

The subdued palette, an elegy of monotones lifted only by a dash of red lipstick, along with Spencer’s judicious balance of texture and tonal blocking (typical of his early work), makes for a psychologically penetrating and powerful representation of this strong woman who supported the artist in his last years. The drama of the Preece days seems very far away indeed.  

Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill is currenly on loan and can be seen in the exhibition ‘Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: An Untold Story’, at Charleston, Lewes, to 8 September, 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass.

About the author
Amanda Bradley Petitgas
An art historian specialising in Stanley Spencer and a trustee of the Sir Stanley Spencer Memorial Trust.
IndividualTiana Clarke Please note this is an example card and not a reflection of the final product

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