Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: an untold story

In 1996 the art world was shocked by the revelation that paintings previously attributed to Patricia Preece were actually the work of her partner Dorothy Hepworth.

This intriguing story is the focus of a fascinating Charleston exhibition at Lewes (a new cultural center in the heart of the city), which reveals details of the couple’s lifelong artistic partnership and features a host of Hepworth’s beautifully executed portraits and still lifes.

Better known as the wife of artist Stanley Spencer, Preece was previously considered an accomplished painter in her own right, and was hailed by Augustus John as “one of the six greatest women artists in England”. But letters, diaries and photographs, some of which are shown in the exhibition, show that Hepworth created all the paintings herself and agreed to Preece passing the work off as her own. The couple documented their creative partnership in detail, perhaps with the intention that one day the truth would come to light.

The Hepworth/Preece partnership begins

Hepworth and Preece met at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1918, “soon discovered that they had many tastes in common” (Preece wrote) and forged a romantic relationship that lasted until their deaths. Hepworth’s talent is evident in her early sketches and she graduated with honors.

After leaving the Slade, the couple traveled to Paris in 1922, where they visited lesbian salons – “Paris’s acceptance of gays was attractive” – and Hepworth honed her skills at the famous Académie Colarossi. However, it seems that even there the couple was secretive about their relationship (as was common at the time) and often described themselves as ‘sisters’ or ‘friends’.

Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece, undated photo © Dorothy Hepworth Estate.

When they returned to England, they settled together at Moor Thatch in Cookham, Berkshire, and Hepworth continued to paint. Some of her earlier work, already attributed to Preece, was exhibited in London in 1928.

After the death in 1930 of Hepworth’s father, who had helped them with their livelihood, they experienced financial difficulties and it was appropriate for this arrangement to continue. Hepworth was shy and disliked company, while Preece was charismatic and gregarious and enjoyed representing the public face of the work of art.

Support from the Bloomsbury Group

Preece received significant support from members of the Bloomsbury Group, particularly the painter Roger Fry, who apparently never knew the true nature of the duo’s partnership.

Clive Bell thought she was describing Preece, calling Hepworth’s paintings “psychological rather than decorative”, Duncan Grant spoke of her “intense personal vision”, and Vanessa Bell stated that the artist was “gifted and very serious and in desperate need of encouragement” .

Virginia Woolf bought two drawings and asked Preece to paint a portrait of her friend, composer Ethel Smyth, but reported that Preece was “all tweeting” at the prospect of painting in an unknown studio – which obviously caused disappointment . The portrait never came out. It is ironic and rather sad, given Bloomsbury’s various unconventional gay and bisexual relationships, that Hepworth and Preece never felt able to reveal their lesbian or artistic partnership to them.

Augustus John supported Preece and opened her solo exhibition in Old Bond Street in 1936. He wrote in a letter, somewhat condescendingly I thought: “You have made great progress” and added: “Perhaps it is time for you to remove yourself from Cookham.” But Preece and Hepworth preferred to stay close to home.

Preece’s marriage to Stanley Spencer

Preece came to the attention of fellow Cookham resident Stanley Spencer and began posing for him, the fees from which helped pay the mortgage at Moor Thatch. Spencer fell in love with Preece and wanted one ménage à trois with his wife Hilda Carline, also a painter. While Spencer seems to come off slightly in his treatment of Carline, Preece is often negatively portrayed as the temptress who destroyed a marriage.

In 1937, Preece agreed to marry Spencer after his divorce from Carline, perhaps largely for financial reasons. It’s hard to know what Hepworth thought of this decision, but in the wedding photo she stands awkwardly apart, with a rather shocked expression.

Marriage of Patricia Preece and Stanley Spencer in 1937
Marriage of Patricia Preece and Stanley Spencer 1937. Dorothy Hepworth is standing to Patricia’s right. © Dorothy Hepworth estate.

Nevertheless, Hepworth accompanied Preece on the ‘honeymoon’ to St Ives, and the couple continued to live together afterwards. It is not known whether the marriage was ever consummated. It is interesting to compare Hepworth’s sensitive and intimate drawings of Preece with Spencer’s fleshy, exaggerated paintings of her, one of which is in the exhibition.

Spencer had suspicions about the women’s relationship, spread gossip about it, and about Preece’s ability to paint, telling a friend, “I’ve never seen her (Preece) paint, or with a brush in her hand.” Preece arranged for local sitters so that the painter’s identity was unlikely to be shared more widely.

Hepworth’s paintings: inner worlds

Hepworth continued to paint for the rest of her life and the Charleston exhibition is filled with her beautiful portraits from the 1930s to the 1950s. The paintings depict (mainly) women of different ages, engrossed in reading or playing cards, always looking down or to the side. The colors are quite muted, but with pops of color – a vase of tulips, a bowl of fruit or bright red nail polish.

Girl with yellow dress, undated oil on canvas
Dorothy Hepworth, Girl in a Yellow Dress, undated, oil on canvas © Dorothy Hepworth Estate. Image courtesy of Towner Eastbourne.jpg.

I was fortunate enough to be alone in the gallery most of the time, and the overall impression was one of calm silence and contemplation. I felt like I was tapping into Hepworth’s own inner world, depicted through the portraits. I was reminded of some of Gwen John’s work that has a similar quality.

Together in death

When reading about Hepworth and Preece’s unusual story, a voyeuristic or judgmental perspective can cast a shadow over Hepworth’s art. The Charleston exhibition redresses this imbalance, with a clear focus on Hepworth’s art and uncovering previously hidden aspects of the pair’s collaboration.

Many unanswered questions remain about the nature of the relationship between the two women. Hepworth continued to sign her paintings as Patricia Preece even after Preece’s death in 1966, and the couple are buried together in Cookham churchyard.

Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: an untold story is in Charleston at Lewes in addition to a complementary exhibition, Duos: the art of collaboration. Both exhibitions can be seen until September 8, 2024. All images are reproduced with kind permission of Charleston at Lewes.

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