Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959


The Artist’s Family

(Gillian) Jason Rhodes, London

Private Collection

In 1937, after a prolonged courtship which precipitated a divorce from his first wife, Hilda, Stanley Spencer married his second wife, Patricia Preece. Preece became both saviour and tormentor to Spencer, subject of his most astonishing figurative and portrait works including 'Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (Leg of Mutton)', 1937; Tate Collection, 'Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece', 1937; Fitzwilliam Museum, and 'Nude (Portrait of Patricia Preece)', 1935; City of Kingston-upon-Hull. Spencer and Preece's relationship was immensely strained: their marriage was never consummated and instead Preece brought her lover, Dorothy Hepworth, to live with them, and Spencer was consumed by his sexual obsession with Preece. Moreover, Preece's profligate spending nearly reduced Spencer to bankruptcy causing immense financial and professional stress.

Spencer disliked using models and thus close family and friends became his subjects, and Preece often sat for him. 'Diffidence 2nd vers[ion] (Patricia Preece)', c. 1935, depicts Preece in the years of Spencer's courtship. She is at once terrifying and seductive, revealing and yet coyly tucking her legs around herself. Spencer evidently worked for a prolonged period on this drawing, repeatedly changing and adjusting the lines delineating her arms, hands, feet, nipples, legs, shoulders, attempting to capture a true likeness of Preece's spirit and character. Pentimenti, a word derived from the Italian ‘pentirsi’ meaning to repent or change one’s mind, describes the alterations visible throughout Spencer’s drawing. However, rather than an incidental feature of the work, the artist here ensures that such lines become a purposeful stylistic process reflecting his struggle to capture an impression of Patricia. Twitch-like movement is also implied. A nervous energy affects Spencer’s hand and his sitter’s demeanour alike. The result is a drawing that epitomises the eccentric charm of Stanley Spencer’s finest work and embodies his steadfast refusal to deviate from his idiosyncratic worldview.


Stanley Spencer was born in 1891 in Cookham, the idyllic Berkshire village in which he spent most of his life, and with which his work is intimately linked. Brought up in an erudite, highly talented and musical family, the penultimate of nine children and taught at home by his music teacher father and elder sisters, Spencer studied at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1908. Under the tutelage of the famed Henry Tonks and counting amongst his contemporaries and friends Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Christopher R. W. Nevinson, Spencer quickly rose to prominence and Roger Fry included his work in his seminal Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912. Spencer spent WWI working in the Royal Army Medical Corps, first in Bristol and then in Macedonia and the European Front Line. The horrors he saw during WWI had a profound effect upon Spencer's work, and precipitated some of the acknowledged masterpieces of his career including the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere. Spencer married Hilda Carline in 1925, with whom he had two daughters. Hilda, alongside his second wife, Patricia Preece whom he married in 1937, were of immense importance to Spencer's work, acting as both models and muses. During WWII, Spencer again worked as an Official War Artist, painting the shipbuilders on the Clyde in Glasgow. Spencer was made a Royal Academician in 1950, awarded a CBE in the same year and knighted in 1959. Major retrospective exhibitions were held during his lifetime at the Tate in 1955 and the Arts Council 1954-5. Spencer died in 1959, and the Stanley Spencer Gallery was opened at Cookham three years later.

Arguably the most important British artist of the twentieth-century, Stanley Spencer's unique, deeply original, visionary art combined the picturesque everyday of village life in rural Britain with poetic Biblical scenes and idiosyncratic, shockingly modern sexuality. Prolific in many genres, he is as much remembered for his devastatingly powerful war work as his depictions of bucolic English countryside, for his epic religious tableaux set in Cookham, his portraits of distinguished friends and patrons, the hyper-realistic, proto-Lucien Freud nude portraits of Hilda, Patricia and himself, and his monumental projects including Sandham Memorial Chapel and the Shipbuilding on the Clyde cycle at the Imperial War Museum. Major retrospective exhibitions have been staged at the Courtauld Art Gallery (2013), Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (2013), Stanley Spencer Gallery (2013, 2014, 2015), York Art Gallery (2009), Laing Art Gallery (2008), Tate Britain (2001), Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (which toured to Mexico and California) (1997), Arts Council touring exhibition (1981), and the Royal Academy (1980). His work is held by international museums and galleries including Tate, MoMA; New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York, the National Gallery of Canada; Ottowa, the Stedelijk Museum; Amsterdam, and the National Gallery of Canada; Ottowa amongst many others.