Two Lesbian Lovers’ Elaborate Art Hoax

In the mid-1930s, Virginia Woolf wrote a letter to the queer composer and militant suffragist Dame Ethel Smyth, requesting that Smyth commission a portrait from a young female artist popular in Bloomsbury circles. “There is a Miss Preece much admired by Roger and Vanessa,” Woolf wrote, referring to the Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry and her sister Vanessa Bell. “She is poor. She is shy. She lives in Cookham. … Could you come to Cookham? She’s afraid of failing in a strange studio. She — Preece — is in a twitter.”

Preece was, in fact, not shy. Rather, she was known for her flamboyance, her magnetism, and her confidence. Woolf might have found her timid because she was actually trying to evade the commission.  

Why would an artist who had complained to Woolf about her money problems and lack of career direction eschew such lucrative work? Perhaps because recent research has shown that many of the paintings previously attributed to (and signed by) Patricia Preece are in fact the work of her life partner Dorothy Hepworth. Shy and permanently unsatisfied with her work, Hepworth fits Woolf’s profile far better than her lover, but Hepworth’s name is rarely mentioned in Bloomsbury correspondence, and then often only as Preece’s “friend” or even “sister.” 

For most of their adult lives, the two women employed an elaborate hoax in which Hepworth’s paintings were exhibited and sold under Preece’s name. Their trick was particularly successful in the 1920s and ’30s, when they fooled not only Woolf and Bell, but other major art-world figures including Fry, Duncan Grant, and Augustus John. Hepworth, a very skilled and prolific artist, would produce painting after painting, while the charismatic Preece would use her charm and networking skills to find exhibition opportunities, buyers, and patrons. Preece herself rarely lifted a brush; she wriggled out the commission to paint Ethyl Smyth’s portrait presumably because her lack of talent would have revealed the ruse on which they had based their lives. 

A forthcoming exhibition at Charleston in Lewes, the home and studio of Bell and Grant, attempts to bring Hepworth out of the shadows, celebrating her work as an artist and highlighting the pair’s radically collaborative lifetime partnership. Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: An Untold Story, opening March 27, will exhibit archival letters, diary entries, and photographs alongside paintings and drawings that, for the first time, are attributed to both Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece.

“In the past, their relationship was really misrepresented,” the exhibition’s curator, Emily Hill, told Hyperallergic. “We want to focus on their uncontentious collaboration and their life partnership together.” Previously, much of the narrative around the pair has focused on Preece’s more public and tempestuous life, with Dorothy portrayed as a minor background figure. However, Hill explains that “a lot of Patricia’s life was actually devoted to allowing Dorothy to paint as much as possible.” As well as being the public face of the partnership, recent research suggests that Preece also did a lot of practical administrative work, for example “setting up a still life for Dorothy to paint or organising a payment from a sitter.”

Hepworth’s paintings have a powerfully quiet and luminous quality. Many of her works are portraits, in which faces and objects are thrown into relief by colourful, dappled light. Her sitters are mostly depicted inside, among the modest but comfortable accoutrements of middle-class life. In “The Green Devan” (undated), a young woman lies on a day bed in a small, low-ceilinged room that is somewhat incongruously decorated with a classical sculpture and gilt-framed paintings. This sense of self-containment and privacy defines her oeuvre, perhaps reflecting a personal life largely conducted behind closed doors. 

Preece and Hepworth met while sharing a studio at the Slade School of Art in 1922, and quickly formed a close romantic relationship. After a stint studying in Paris, the couple established themselves in Cookham, Berkshire, supported by an allowance from Hepworth’s father and whatever they could make from selling Hepworth’s paintings under Preece’s name. However, in 1930, Hepworth’s father passed away, revealing his finances as near-bankrupt, and the pair lost the income they had relied on during the previous decade. 

They next turned to Preece’s charms for support. She modeled extensively for their next-door neighbor, the painter Stanley Spencer, who became obsessed with her. Indeed, some of his most famous portraits, such as “Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece” (1937), depict her. Spencer eventually divorced his wife in 1937, marrying Preece five days later. Preece then left for their honeymoon in Cornwall — taking Hepworth with her, while Spencer stayed behind to work. 

In that interim, Spencer slept with the same ex-wife he had left for Preece. Claiming to be furious at this “betrayal,” Preec refused to consummate the marriage. Preece and Hepworth then moved back into their old home in Cookham — without Spencer. Preece, however, somehow persuaded Spencer to sign his house over to her; she quickly evicted him and rented out the house to provide herself and Hepworth with an income. It is tempting to think of Preece’s relationship with Spencer as another hoax, planned from the beginning to secure Preece and Hepworth’s future together. 

These ruses seem to have formed the basis of Preece and Hepworth’s lives together. But were they simply a means of survival, or did the couple take pleasure in knowing they were fooling their richer, more famous peers? There is no way of knowing for sure, but Hill suggests that the significance of their collaboration goes beyond simple trickery: “I think it allowed them to create something together. They weren’t allowed to express their love for each other beyond their interior lives, and this was a way in which they could work and live together. And they did it, for over 50 years.” Indeed, in a show of devotion, Hepworth continued to sign her paintings with Preece’s name, even after the latter’s death. Eventually, the couple were buried in the same grave, below a headstone reading: “United in life and in death.” 

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