Nik Picks Apart a Painting #2: Elizabeth Wimperis by Stanley Spencer 

Stanley Spencer’s portrait of Elizabeth Wimperis is one of my favourite portraits at the National Gallery. 

All the same, I had no idea who Stanley Spencer was until some recent research. What follows is juicy gossip disguised as history. Which is the best kind of history, really.

Cast of Characters:

·         Stanley Spencer: artist.

·         Hilda Carline: Stanley’s 1st wife, also an artist.

·         Patricia Preece: Stanley’s 2nd wife, a lesbian, also an artist.

·         Dorothy Hepworth: also a lesbian, Patricia’s lifelong companion and lover, and also an artist.

Stanley married Hilda. He then became obsessed with Patricia. She was a lesbian, in a lifelong relationship with Dorothy. All the same, Stanley showered Patricia with presents and painted multiple portraits of her. Some of these portraits are nudes. They are realistic, unflattering, weird, but great pieces of art. 

Patricia insisted Stanley leave his wife Hilda and marry her. Patricia also had him sign over a house to her. Evidently, she shamelessly manipulated him and was a terrible flirt.  

Stanley, on his part, fantasized about having two wives.  He was convinced that if he married Patricia, he could get Hilda to join them in a ménage-a-trois. Not exactly sound thinking.

Once Stanley and Patricia were married, she had what she wanted.  For the honeymoon, Patricia and Dorothy ran off together, leaving Stanley behind. While Patricia was out of town, Stanley spent the night with his first wife, Hilda. Patricia, learning of this, claimed she was upset at this adultery, and used it as an excuse to refuse to have sex with Stanley.  It is believed that Stanley never actually consummated his second marriage.

Patricia refused to divorce Stanley. Stanley tried to divorce her, but Patricia’s lawyers stopped the proceedings.

After it was clear his relationship with Patricia was doomed, Stanley maintained a relationship with his first wife, Hilda.  He also had a few other affairs.

Stanley was a successful artist, painting religious works, as well as art about the world wars. He received a knighthood. Despite their sham marriage, Patricia insisted on being called “Lady Spencer”. After Stanley died, she claimed his pension as Stanley’s widow.

Wow, right?  How bizarre and convoluted. There is a play about this weird web of relationships called “Stanley”, by Pam Gems. I am curious, so I have ordered a copy online.

Stanley lived in Cookham, and was obsessed with the place. He painted religious scenes, but used locals and settings from Cookham. This includes a painting called “The Resurrection, Cookham”, which shows a cemetery where his friends and neighbours are rising up out of their graves, reborn in the rapture. It’s hard for me to reconcile Stanley’s convoluted relationships, and his religious life.  He seems a bit of a mystic.

When he was older, Stanley could be seen wandering Cookham, pushing an old baby carriage which contained his easel and canvases. He wore his pajamas under his clothes to stay warm on cold days. People called him eccentric.  Patricia said in her diaries that he was “mad”.

Stanley Spencer fascinates me, in part, as a character.  But I’m also intrigued by his art because some of his work is similar to Lucian Freud. (And I am obsessed with Lucian Freud.) Stanley and Lucian have both painted meaty, realistic, unflattering, downright disturbing nudes. These portraits are shocking because they’re not pretty in the slightest, but have a kind of fierce honesty. There are definite similarities in their styles.

The Elizabeth Wimperis portrait speaks to that style, somewhat. This is not a glamour portrait. It is honest, lumpy, and  for being so stylized and real at the same time.