You are like a coral reef in the Indian Ocean with strange and beautiful fish
                   darting about, and other curious creatures.

                                                                                    The divorced Hilda to Stanley, 1939.     

It was not unusual in those days of maiden aunts residual from large Victorian families for Patrica and Dorothy to set up home together as a pair of single women, and even less so after the Great War when almost a generation of marriageable young men was wiped out. But in those less libertarian yearsthe thought of the two women enjoying mutual sex, although not illegal as for men, was not so socially tolerated. There is evidence that as early as 1928 - the year The Well of Loneliness was published and then banned as obscene - residents in Cookham suspected the couple of lesbianism, with several displaying their disapproval in practical terms even though they were given no proof. Indeed Patricia consistently denied it to the end of her days, vehemently and even aggressively if it were suggested.

Stanley's infatuation with Patricia mystified his contemporaries and has long puzzled his commentators. It is incomprehensible if seen only from the down-to-earth level or that of everyday practicality, the view which the artworld of his time and Patricia herself took of it. Innocence on Stanley's part is sometimes invoked, but his outlook in other circumstances scarcely justifies this interpretation, and in any case it was not long before he and Hilda had become discreetly aware. More feasible is pride. As a prodigal son of Cookham, Stanley had returned as a celebrity in 1932 basking in the success of The Cookham Resurrection and Burghclere masterpieces. Back in his native village the future seemed to open gloriously before him, with new excitements promising unprecedented ventures, and there too Patricia dangled for him the new Cookham-feelings through which he felt he might achieve them.

Viewed in this 'up-in-heaven' light, Stanley's longing for physical and emotional access to Patricia is more understandable. Their sexual relationship was finally cemented, according to Patricia's account, when she accompanied him on a second commission to Switzerland in 1935. But equally he wanted to maintain the same access to Hilda who was still his major Muse. Convincing himself that the legality of the marriage-state was irrelevant to artists such as themselves, he set out to secure both women as 'wives'. Merely thinking up so fraught a plan can seem bizarre to conventional folk, and Stanley was aware of its effect and of the compulsion which drove him to it : My personal life [his ego or 'universal' identity] is up-in-heaven life. My impersonal life [his id or individual everyday identity] is a separate-from-me thing, and my behaviour [as seen by others] is quite difficult.

A major stumbling-block to Stanley's tripartite 'marriage' was the fact that the pragmatic Patricia would only consent if she were the legal wife. So he quietly devised a scheme, the gist of which would reverse Hilda's rôle by persuading her to divorce him, and then, after his marriage to Patricia, to return to him as his other 'wife'. But then there were obstacles too in that scenario. Hilda's high principles and her view of marriage as a sacrament made Stanley all-too-aware he could not be certain she would be willing to return as the other 'wife'. So he in setting up his byzantine scheme, he planned to keep Hilda initially unaware and to take care not to alarm Patricia by any qualms as to its possible failure (he could keep his mouth shut when he wanted, an exasperated Patricia later discovered to her dismay.) He thus gave himself two potential rods to his back.

To persuade Hilda, now almost permanently in Hampstead, to divorce him, Stanley set out in an almost frenzied exchange of letters to convince her of his overriding need for Patricia. With a brutal candour which a reader can find offensive but the frankness of which Hilda clearly understood as the scars of his frustration, he told her Patricia is the reward for the all best work I have done (he was glowing with self-satisfaction at accomplishing his forthright nudes of Patricia and at finding himself able at last to use his sex feelings without guilt as elements in a new series of imaginative paintings he called his sex-pictures.)

The divorce proceedings which the bemused Hilda reluctantly initiated were, in the manner of those days, prolonged. In making his moves Stanley had patently to undertake much dissembling, and as such dissembling was against his instinctive honesty, there were times when he became ferociously touchy. The ambivalence of his feelings at this period emerges in two of his most memorable paintings, his Lovers or The Dustman of 1934 and his St Francis and the Birds of 1935, both of which were the source of his notorious resignation from the Royal Academy in 1935.

The decree nisi was at last finalised in June 1937. He and Patricia immediately married at Maidenhead Registry Office. A dubious Dorothy Hepworth and a loyal Jas Wood were co-opted as witnesses. Assertions that the marriage was never consummated may be doubtful, although the couple's post-wedding celebration, as described by Stanley to William MacQuitty, was indeed a disaster. It seems to be pictured in Stanley's painting The Long Looking Glass, in which he and Patricia, after a 'wedding breakfast' lunch in Maidenhead, went back alone to Lindworth. There Patricia began proceedings by taking such a lengthy bath that Stanley could barely sustain his erection. When she emerged highly made-up and smoking a cigarette in her usual long elegant holder, habits which he detested, it collapsed completely. The painting (possibly later tampered with) can be seen as a counterpoint partner to Toasting which records the serenity of the afterglow of his lovemaking to Hilda.

One intention of the wife-swop was to assure Patricia of an income by acting in his name as his business manager, as she was doing for Dorothy. The sex aspect of the compact was that she would continue to provide Stanley with the fantasy sex he was finding so 'inspirational' in his art at the time, but that he would rely on Hilda for everything more. He was aware from the earlier occasions on which Patricia had consented to sex (seemingly as 'rewards' for his generous gifts to her) that she found penetration painful - it was no good, except at first, as he later told Hilda. He knew too that Patricia would not permit their marriage to jeopardise her relationship with the concerned Dorothy and would insist on continuing to live at Moor Thatch, a stipulation which depended for its social acceptance on her being able to indicate to the world at large that Hilda had returned to Lindworth and was again a 'wife' to him. In the meantime, she spent her wedding night with Dorothy at Moor Thatch.

The next morning the two women left early by rail for the 'honeymoon' at St.Ives, replete with one trunk, two suitcases, one black bag, one hand bag, one hamper, one hat box, one easel bundle, one canvas bundle, one paintbox and the rest of the wedding cake. They had taken a cottage for a month, their first opportunity for a joint holiday in more than seven penurious years. In accord with the scheme, Patricia had previously written to an astonished Hilda inviting her to join Stanley on the 'honeymoon', and arranged separate accommodation for them.

Back in Cookham, Stanley, delaying his departure ostensibly to finish a landscape, left a phone message for Hilda to suggest that as he was alone at Lindworth for a few days she might like to come and collect any personal items she wanted.

Hilda arrived while Stanley was out painting. Searching the house, she came across her letters to him, all neatly sequenced and tied with ribbon. She was so moved she did not have the heart to take them. Instead she tidied the place up and waited for him to come home. They spent the night together. I can tell you that the joy and relief of finding that he not only liked me but seemed to be just like his old self to me was overwhelming. He assured me that Patricia wanted me to spend the night with him and it would in no way be harming her. 

Stanley must have thought his dream was materialising, but alas the next day Stanley began explaining the scheme to me and then I began to realise that I might have been beguiled by the whole atmosphere....all the same I did not regret it, as that perfect day seemed to wipe away all the last few years and to have put things right between Stanley and me. But she did not accept his urging to go with him to St Ives, and returned to Hampstead to think things over.

When Stanley got to St Ives a few days later, he
went for a walk with Patricia to collect sea-shells for a mirror frame she wanted to decorate and he told her of events in Lindworth. According to her account, promoted publicly and published later, she was so shocked at his 'adultery' with Hilda that an angry quarrel broke out and she refused him all conjugal rights. But if indeed an argument did take place, it was patently not the result of Stanley's 'adultery', which she had been dutifully encouraging as her share in the scheme. A more likely inference is that any such rumpus was due to Stanley's practical suggestion that, with no Hilda there, he could dispense with the alternative accommodation and share the two women's cottage, a proposal which Patricia - already unsettled at his failure to persuade Hilda to join them and alarmed at the difficulties she would face if Hilda did not acquiesce in the scheme -  viewed with distaste and vetoed. The upshot was that a solitary Stanley found himself banished for the duration to his separate lodging, emerging daily in mostly wet Cornish weather to find a sheltered spot from which to paint local town and seascapes to pay for it all. Whenever he tried to get Patricia to himself, Dorothy was always there, insisting on making a threesome.

Back in Hampstead, Hilda, talking matters over with her mother, was dissuaded from further compliance. When  the ever-hopeful Stanley returned and resumed pressure on her, spurred on by his commitment and by the now impatient Patricia, Mrs Carline took practical steps to obstruct it. Every attempt in the following months to get Hilda to change her mind ended in failure.  Although distressed for him at his forlorn hopes, she remained adamant, declaring that she could not be a mistress where I had been a wife.
Patricia in the meantime, now his legal wife, stuck unshakably to her side of their understanding, holding over Stanley the fact that any sexual or inspirational problems into which Hilda's refusal plunged him was not only his responsibility, but put her into as much difficulty as himself. With no Hilda at Lindworth, she found herself facing the social necessity of defusing suspicions as to the real reason she was not cohabiting with him. So she judiciously promulgated in the right ears her 'adultery' version of their St Ives 'quarrel', with added embellishment of the 'brutality' of his lovemaking (his nudes of himself, presumably as exact as always, suggest he was comfortingly endowed.) Roger Fry's former companion Helen Anrep, a kind-hearted shepherdess of lost sheep, was only one of several sympathisers so incensed at Patricia's version that she thereafter branded Stanley as that fiend Spencer.

By the early summer of the following year, 1938, Stanley was forced to accept that his scheme had gone badly awry in almost every aspect. He was left saddled with maintaining a costly Patricia and Dorothy at Moor Thatch, an absent Hilda and the girls in Hampstead, and himself alone in Lindworth, which as part of the 'scheme' he had made over to Patricia to reduce his tax liabilities. For the first time in his life he was in financial trouble. His capital was being depleted by traders' demands to settle for the gifts he had lavished on Patricia, art sales were limited by the uncertainty of the approaching war, and in spite of desperate months of painting landscapes for cash when he wanted to work on visionary projects, his income slumped. Patricia's manipulative efforts at handling his work were of little help, and in fact threatened his professional relationship with his dealer Dudley Tooth, principal of the international firm of Tooth and Sons (who also dealt for Augustus John and Jacob Epstein.) Failure to meet maintenance settlements brought court proceedings and a threat of imprisonment, an alarming experience for a celebrity who throughout his life till then had managed his money prudently. The last straw came when Patricia, in need of unpaid maintenance, moved him out of Lindworth to local lodgings, installed electricity and rented out the house for income, although he retained use of the garden studio (the house was used in the coming war by a shipping company as safe out-of-London accommodation for merchant navy crews resting between voyages. Patricia was finally to sell it in 1948.)

Disillusioned, homeless, and with bankruptcy looming, an uncharacteristically dispirited Stanley locked up his studio in the late summer of that year and fled to a rented room in London. There he went into hiding and planned his paintings of Christ in the Wilderness. For weeks, no one knew where he was. He was eventually located and helped out of trouble by influential friends and patrons, notably by John Rothenstein, then Director of the Tate Gallery, and by Dudley Tooth whose business acumen (unlike that of Patricia whom he forced out of her function as Stanley's manager) saved him financially, although he was never to be wealthy.

However, a relieved Stanley did not immediately settle back in Cookham. At a London party in the autumn he met Daphne Charlton ....nearly intellectual....very opinionated ....marvellous cook....rather delightful when she was off the sex, according to Ian Kellam. She lived in Hampstead with her Slade-lecturer husband George, and by the June of 1939 the threesome had became a ménage-à-trois at the Charlton home in New End Square.

With the voracious Daphne, Stanley seems to have enjoyed untrammelled sex for the first time, indicated by the animal vigour of his painting On the Tiger Rug (Hilda on principle had refused contraception so that he had to practise withdrawal, while the reluctant Patricia removed all of herself up into her head which she buried in a pillow, and sub-let the rest of her shifting high rental, as Stanley told Jas Wood.)

With the onset of war in 1939 the London Slade relocated to Oxford, and the trio of Stanley, Daphne and George moved to a village pub at Leonard Stanley in Gloucestershire  From there Stanley commuted periodically to a blitzed London and to Port Glasgow where he was engaged first on his shipbuilding paintings for the then War Artists Advisory Committee, followed by his Port Glasgow Resurrections. There, in Glasgow, he met another admirer, the cultured refugee psychiatrist Dr Charlotte Murray, and they too became lovers.

Clieden View  Photo ©author Still homeless at the end of the war, Stanley was offered by his brother Percy the purchase of a small Spencer-family cottage, Cliveden View, in Cookham Rise, where their sister Annie had been temporarily domiciled after leaving Fernlea. He gladly accepted it, with Dudley Tooth arranging to finance the mortgage for him. A filmed visit to him at the cottage is available at <> by entering <Stanley Spencer> in Search. He occupied it until the closing months of his life, when friends moved him back into the empty Fernlea which had just come up for sale, by then renamed Fernley. (Since then Cliveden View has been enlarged to double its original size and Fernley renovated - see <> search <Stanley Spencer>.)

Back in Cookham and taking up
in his cottage the threads of his professional career, Stanley resumed cordial if asexual contact with Patricia who was now so thin it is terrible to see (anaemia was diagnosed) and helping the women move furniture when an exceptionally high Thames flood threatened to maroon them in Moor Thatch. But he was also receiving comforting visits from Daphne Charlton who was back again in Hampstead, and he wasGraham and Charlotte Murray .   Photo  ©Exors of Graham Murray corresponding and visiting with Charlotte Murray in Glasgow. Charlotte was daughter of a German-Jewish professor of mathematics in pre-Nazi days. A fine musician, she had studied medicine at Heidelberg and psychology with Jung in Switzerland. She had met her husband Graham when he taught art at her war refugee reception centre, but had become frustrated at finding little use for her talents in wartime Scotland, where he was now art master at Port Glasgow High School. Spellbound by Stanley's metaphysical approach to art, she took a post in London to be near him, abandoning the long-suffering Graham in Glasgow. Fists apparently flew when she and Daphne Charlton met by mischance one day in Cookham.

Hilda in the meantime had remained with her ageing mother Annie until their invaluable housekeeper Mrs Arnfield retired in 1937. They then joined her brother Richard (who had met artist Nancy Higgins in 1934) at his home, also in Hampstead but in nearby Pond Street. Her daughters Shirin and Unity were awarded bursaries at Badminton School in Bristol, evacuated during the war to Lynmouth in Devon. Hilda remained with the supportive Richard and Nancy in the difficult war and postwar years through her mother's death, her own mental breakdown and two bouts of breast cancer. A monograph on her life and art by Alison Thomas was published in 1999 to support an exhibition of her work curated by Timothy Wilcox. Most of her collection has now been dispersed.

Richard's WWI experience as an air observer was used in WWII in developing camouflage, and he and Nancy became closely involved in refugee artists' affairs. Stanley kept in continual contact, made regular visits to Hilda during her spells in hospital, and when she recovered, periodically had her to stay with him in a brotherly-sister fashion, or to join him on excursions. Richard was later to become an arts counsellor for UNESCO, travelling widely. Among his activities was the publishing of his book on his early years with Stanley and the first comprehensive exhibition of Stanley's work at the Royal Academy in 1980. He died the following year. Nancy died Jan 2005 aged 94.

Hilda's final collapse from her second bout of breast cancer, ending in her death in 1950, brought down a curtain in Stanley's creative life. Publicly, he remained as extrovert as ever, enjoying visits to and from friends and family, attending functions, taking part in lectures, films and broadcasts, and undertaking commissioned portraits. But inwardly he retreated into a kind of monastic existence in his Cookham cottage, doing his best to break contact with his three women. His numbed reaction can be seen in his painting Dinner on the Ferry Hotel Lawn (Tate Gallery T00141), one of the 'predellas' of his Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta series. He began by launching surprise divorce proceedings against Patricia, claiming her vaunted assertions of non-consummation : shocked, she reacted so robustly that he was advised to settle for a legal separation with periodically updated maintenance. Then his attempts, ludicrous at times, to evade visits from a resolute Daphne became a source of village merriment. But a dejected Charlotte gave in and resignedly returned to the patient Graham in Glasgow, her hopes of conceiving a child by Stanley dashed when none came. A Trust was set up to safeguard the interests of Stanley's two daughters. Echoing the family genes, Shirin became a musician, Unity an artist.

Although Patricia and Stanley never acknowledged each other after the separation, she insisted on being addressed as Lady Spencer when he was knighted in the summer of 1959, and after his death from cancer the following December even claimed the pension available to widows of RAs (Stanley had been reinstated by Sir Gerald Kelly in 1950 as the Pathé newsreel indicates.) Dorothy and she remained at Moor Thatch, with Dorothy continuing painting and exhibiting (mostly portraits and local views : she was a gifted miniaturist when younger) and Patricia enjoying with her a profitable hobby in the buying and selling of portable antiques at sales and auctions. One of their finds, a mediaeval carving of St Catherine, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Financially comfortable again at last, although in chronic bad health, Patricia died aged 72 in 1966, so permitting the posthumous publication of her version of her life with Stanley earlier ghosted by Louise Collis (Stanley Spencer: A Private View, Heinemann 1972.) The details she provided Louise were accurately compiled but she distorted their implications provocatively to safeguard her relationship with Dorothy, about which both remained highly reticent and reclusive. She gave little sympathy to the metaphysical aspects of Stanley's outlook. Dorothy survived her, slowly losing her sight, and often cared for by Patricia's even older sister Sybil from London, a dignified and kindly soul who, as manager of a Mayfair Nanny agency, had done what she could to keep the couple afloat during their poverty years - the best daughter a man ever had according to their father - and in many ways the reverse in character of Patricia, on whom he made no comment.

I sit here with a fire and every comfort, Dorothy wrote in her diary after Patricia's death. To be together and no worry, sufficient money, reasonable health. We did not have it, and what we did have we fought for bitterly. My whole self aches for her. But I do not want her back if I could, not to face old age. She died aged 80 in 1978.

A monograph dealing with their (actually Dorothy's) considerable output of painting, and the unusual way in which it was presented in Patricia's name, is currently (2005) under preparation. A brief account of their relationship is given in the attached website, based on the several exhibitions of Dorothy's work set up in London and USA by Michael Dickens.

Dorothy and Patricia lie together in Cookham Cemetery (with the increase of population in the parish, the churchyard had long been closed to burials.) Hilda too had earlier been laid to rest in the cemetery, and Stanley had arranged to be interred there with her in a family plot. But his influential executors decided, despite family preferences, that at the close of a lifetime laurel-leafed with national and international honours, he should lie in the ancient churchyard of the village which had meant so much to him. So he was cremated and his ashes laid, with due ceremony, beside the path through to Bellrope Meadow. A discreet marble memorial marks the spot.