The wife of Cookham

Art byJohn Henshall

Hilda Carline, the first wife of Stanley Spencer, was a consummate artist in her own right, but has been overlooked almost entirely except as a sad footnote. Almost any lengthy reference to her husband as a great painter will mention his squalid and self-destructive sexual adventures. For too long Carline has been merely the principal addendum to Spencer's essentially degenerate subject.

A fine new show, organised by the Usher Gallery in Lincoln and now at Kenwood, London, should at least go some way towards showing what a superb painter Carline was. It is no exaggeration to say that she was every bit as talented an artist as her recklessly eccentric husband. In many ways, it seems a miracle that she managed to find the will and motivation to create first-class art at all (though not the time: Spencer's cavortings gave her only too much of that, and she was often on her own and in despair).

Carline emerges from this exhibition and from the curator Alison Thomas's sound, if unduly coy, catalogue as someone who barely stood a chance from the off. As a young woman it was really pure luck that she was "permitted" to train as an artist at all. Her sole crime here was her gender. Then she became involved with Spencer. A goat from day one, he peered round her bedroom door long before they married and noted in his diary that "she liked to show as much leg as possible".

She then had to grapple with Spencer's shameless selfishness and almost psychopathic obsession not just with trying to own and control her, but with living her very life for her. This dismal situation culminated in Spencer's desire for a menage a trois with a small-time artist named Patricia Preece, who obviously saw him coming and proceeded to take him for almost every penny he had. Preece eventually contrived to have this vainglorious man evicted from the house he had worked hard to buy in his beloved Cookham in Berkshire, a place Carline loathed.

Annie Hilda Carline (1889-1950) was born in north London and her family decamped to Oxford when she was three, although they had Lincoln connections. Her father George and her brothers Richard and Sydney all became artists. However, while her brothers were actively encouraged, Hilda was left to potter about Oxford, bored witless (there were no dreaming spires for her) until, at the age of 24, her father let her go to an art school in Hampstead run by Percyval Tudor-Hart. He was a man of strong avant-garde, post-impressionist views, who adopted Kandinsky's theories concerning coloration some time before the Russian was well known here.

To her delight, Carline later moved to the Slade and the wholly different approach of Henry Tonks, martinet of formalism and line. Thus she acquired two very different perspectives on the aesthetic process. Subsequently, this enabled her to switch effortlessly from the portraiture, nudes and garden scenescapes that her Slade days had helped refine to a particularly striking, near-abstract landscape style that she had developed under her first tutor.

Carline got to know several prominent London artists and exhibited at the Royal Academy, the new English Art Club and with the London Group. Then in 1919, aged 30, she met Stanley Spencer at a family dinner. From thereon in for Hilda Carline, a perverse fate took over.

The couple married in 1925 at the weathered old church at Wangford in the wilds of north Suffolk, where Carline had been a land girl in the first world war. Here was the landscape immortalised by Harry Becker, the Suffolk impressionist. The Spencers then moved around southern England until Stanley could afford to buy Lindworth at Cookham. They had two daughters.

Patricia Preece and her lesbian lover Dorothy Hepworth lived in Cookham, too. They had an extraordinary professional relationship. Hepworth painted the pictures, while the more outgoing, dominant Preece signed them. This trickery even led Augustus John to declare that Preece was one of England's six best living woman painters, better even than his sister Gwen. Preece made ostensibly enthusiastic overtures to Spencer, who, evidently something of a naIf, was taken in.

Carline had known depression before (only two known works date from the whole of 1933), but this nonsense was too much. After Spencer proposed the menage, Carline divorced him and he married Preece, who then decided Carline could provide Spencer with straight sex: Preece never consummated the relationship, but she did clean Spencer out - he ended up in a single room in Hampstead.

Carline underwent a mastectomy in 1948 and her health never recovered. She died at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead in 1950. Spencer was by her bed ceaselessly, but by then it was too late. To the end, Carline could never quite understand how Spencer could expect her to become his mistress when she had previously been his wife.

This show allows Hilda Carline to hold her head high. We see striking portraits of her and Stanley, and of their lively- looking maid, Elsie Munday. Carline shows a noble awareness that age need not spell indignity in her portraits of her mother, Annie, and an unnamed elderly man. She even painted Preece quite flatteringly (Stanley's portrait of her shows a blowsy, unsophisticated character; perhaps that is what he saw).

There are fine scenescapes such as Swans, Cookham Bridge and Downshire Hill Garden, Hampstead. There are also the vivid landscapes influenced by Carline's earliest training, such as the breathtaking Cliffs, Seaford, East Sussex. This is sterling work. What might Carline have produced but for the company she kept?

In my opinion, it would have been better if Hilda Carline had never met Stanley Spencer, let alone married him. He seems to have almost wrecked her artistic career and, though probably unintentionally, blighted her life. This is a tremendously impressive exhibition. It is also a highly poignant one.

"The Art of Hilda Carline, Mrs Stanley Spencer" is at Kenwood, London NW3 (0181-348 1286) until 11 July. It then tours to York City Art Gallery (24 July to 29 August) and the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea (11 September to 7 November). An illustrated book/catalogue is available (Lund Humphries, London/Usher Gallery, Lincoln) at £14.99 or the special exhibition price of £8.99

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes