Erotic Tension in the Portraits of Sir Stanley Spencer

These are not, first of all, the kind of breasts we like to see in our nudes–pale, pendulous, flaccid and blue-veined, they assault, full frontally, our gaze, with stark unappealingness.

Second, there is that blank, matter-of-fact gaze on the sitter’s face. This is no humanized Venus, no ideal female form. The face is of a real woman, a refined woman, no longer very young; pinched and plucked, it is a refined face gone to seed.

And yet in this frank portrait–first in a series of three–we can perceive the dispair and wonder in the decidedly one-sided love affair between the sitter, artist Patricia Preece, and the reclusive, eccentric English painter Stanley Spencer, who died in 1959 and whose work remains controversial to this day.

A versatile and technically brilliant painter whose themes center around local landscapes, Biblical stories, and domestic scenes, much of Spencer’s work is sexual in nature and bears the stamp of his intense, unique spiritualilty. The core of his spiritual nature is his longing for connection–connection with every living creature; it is particularly in the series of portraits of Preece we see the unresolvable tension between this longing and eartly satisfaction.

Preece’s honey-colored nude torso fills almost every part of the canvas, offset only by a background of the dark brown leather of the chesterfield on which she sits, upright and relaxed. Around the tiny buttons, the shiny pleats of leather circle like aureoles. Her demeanor is in no way warm, but rather distant, almost daring, as if to challenge the artist: If you love me, paint me as you see me. For that is indeed what he has done.

Spencer neither embellishes nor detracts from any detail of her anatomy, from her small, pinched, tight mouth; her bobbed, blondish hair resembling a curl of dull metal; her dark, wide eyes–her most appealing feature–enhanced by sharply etched winglike eyebrows; from the soft honeyish folds of skin that pattern her waist directly below her pendulous breasts; the hair under her lowered arms as she rests her hands on the chair arms; to the the thin triangle of pubic hair rising from her mons up the soft mound of her belly tapering at below her navel.

Her skin glows; her coloring, even to the light blue veins in her enormous breasts, is vivid, accurate, acutely measured–a catalog reproduction can only approximate the warmth and vitality of the colors from Spencer’s palate. It is a realistic portrayal of a woman of her class, race, age and health. Yet the accuracy itself is wonderfully suffused with a great deal of tenderness.

This is no malleable nude. Her gaze at us, though expressionless, imparts her control of the situation, and of the artist’s acquiescence to that control. Indeed, the relationship between Preece and Spencer was a strange, and strained, one.

Still deeply in love with his then-estranged wife, Hilda (also a painter–throughout his life Spencer was attracted to women painters) in 1935 he took up with Preece, a sometime artist living a bohemian life in his native village. Spencer, a Berkshire lad who lived happily in Cookham almost all his life, was wildly infatuated with this exotic-looking, well-born outsider, bought her expensive frocks, begged for her favors, and, eventurally, married her.

The fact that Preece was lesbian who lived openly with her lover did not deter him. In fact, it led to the strangest honeymoon in the history of art–a honeymoon during which the groom’s first wife and the bride’s female lover came along, which resulted in the first wife returning home in a huff, the bride throwing the groom out of bed, fleeing to her lover, and leaving the groom to sleep alone on his wedding night.

For several years afterward Spencer attempted to juggle his relationships with both wives, as well as his children, to the distress of all involved.

Spencer’s relationship with Preece did not last long and was the source of much intense suffering for him. But the three portraits that are the legacy of his frustrated love (he shows himself too, finally, in the last one) have an eerie grace and provide a disturbing challenge to our ideas of sensuality.

“A man raises a woman’s dress with the same passionate admiration and love for the woman as the priest raises the host on the altar,” Stanley Spencer once wrote. His paintings, then, are a glimpse into a singular, private religion.

Nude, Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer English
c 1935
Ferens Art Gallery
Kingston-upon-Hull, England
Bell 165 76.2 x 50.8 cm
Oil on Canvas
1st of Series of Portraits
Completed 1935-1937

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