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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis