Painted in 1955, Hilda with Bluebells recalls in tender detail the earliest years of the artist’s relationship with his first wife, Hilda Carline. In this evocative double portrait, Spencer draws on their protracted courtship in and around Hampstead in the 1920s, some 30 years prior to the painting. Here, we see a young Stanley and Hilda out for a walk on Hampstead Heath, both sitting on the grass: Hilda captivated by the clump of bluebells before her; Stanley, both artist and subject, behind her.
Spencer first met Hilda Carline (1889-1950) in 1919, over dinner at the Carline family home at 47 Downshire Hill in Hampstead, London. Hilda was born into an artistic family: her parents, George and Annie, were both artists; and two of her four brothers, Sydney and Richard, studied painting in Paris and London and spent time at the Slade School of Fine Art. Hilda had artistic ambitions of her own: a skilled draftswoman and watercolourist, her artistic activities were interrupted by the war, during which she served as a Land Girl. After the war, she enrolled as a part-time student at the Slade, where she became a highly accomplished artist, winning several prizes for painting and drawing. In 1921, she exhibited her work for the first time with the London Group.
By late 1919, when Sydney and Richard Carline returned from war work in the Middle East, the Carline's house at Downshire Hill, together with their studios down the road at 14a, became an important meeting place for a number of artists, including Henry Lamb, Mark Gertler, John and Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson, Charles Ginner, and Stanley and Gilbert Spencer. Stanley became attached to the Carlines, joining them on family painting expeditions in England, and on a longer trip to Yugoslavia in 1922. On each of these occasions, Stanley and Hilda painted landscapes side by side and their works are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. The two were married in 1925, living at first in the Vale of Health Hotel, Hampstead before moving to Hampshire in 1927. They had two daughters, Shirin, in 1927, and Unity, in 1930. Later, increasingly complicated issues between Spencer and Hilda would lead to the breakup of the marriage and ultimately divorce, as Spencer became increasingly preoccupied with Patricia Preece, the woman who was to become his second wife. This second marriage would be more unsuccessful than his first, and Spencer would go on to paint a series of works commemorating and reliving his earlier, happier life with Hilda: from which the present work belongs.
1950 marked a turning point in both Spencer’s career and in his personal life. He was elected a Royal Academician, and exhibited five of his well-received Port Glasgow Resurrection series in that year’s summer exhibition. As a result of the skilful promotional campaign by his dealer Dudley Tooth, this critical and financial success meant Spencer now had greater freedom to choose the subjects he wanted to paint. This was also, however, the year that Hilda died from cancer. Spencer had rather optimistically hoped they would reconcile and remarry, and her death had a profound effect on the artist. In place of this now thwarted desire, Spencer substituted the vision of a spiritual union with Hilda, in which she acted as a supportive, ideal companion. All the differences that had often obstructed their relationship when she was alive were to be set aside.
Compelled by this notion, Spencer turned his attention to producing a series of paintings that celebrated events both from their actual lives and from his imagined ideal of a perfect marriage. ‘My desire to paint,’ Spencer once explained, ‘is caused by my being unable – or being incapable – of fulfilling my desires in life itself’. This was particularly true of his experience in marriage: ‘Half the meaning of life,’ he wrote on another occasion, ‘is in my case what the husband and wife situation can produce’. (Spencer quoted in K. Hauser, Stanley Spencer, London, 2001, p. 58).
Hilda with Bluebells belongs to this series of scenes depicting their relationship which Spencer painted for his imagined ‘Church House’ in Cookham. It was destined to adorn the walls of the ‘Hilda Memorial Chapel’, augmented by the nine ‘Domestic Scenes’ from 1935–36. This series was to hang upon the side walls of the chapel, while on the end wall would have been the monumental and unfinished Apotheosis of Hilda. Keith Bell suggests that it was intended to hang on the lower register, on one of the side walls of the chapel (see K. Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, p. 506).
This phase of Spencer’s work begins the progressive veneration of Hilda. Although he had painted and drawn her many times before, virtually as soon as they separated in 1935, she became an almost constant feature in his work, both in portraits, such as Hilda, Unity and Dolls (1937, Leeds City Art Galleries), Hilda and I at Burghclere (1955, Private collection); and in numerous imaginative paintings such as in Love Letters (1950, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection), Hilda Welcomed (1953, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide) and Hilda with Bluebells. These paintings possess a strong sense of Spencer’s nostalgia for the time they spent together. It was these immensely private memories, as well as household routines that held a special joy and significance to Spencer.
It was after Hilda’s death in 1950 when Spencer began to reflect particularly on the early years of their relationship, immortalising her memory in his idealisations of the time they spent together. All the differences that had often obstructed their relationship when she was alive were to be set aside, and as he elevates his first wife to the status of a saint-like figure: she becomes, more than ever, his embodiment of spiritual love rooted in domestic harmony and unspoken mutual understanding.
Spencer was to always remain in touch with Hilda, continuing to express his love for her through extensive love letters, which he continued to write to her up until her death in 1950. Hilda was vital to his painting, his imagination and his mental equilibrium. He needed her as the recipient of his letters, the invisible audience for his thoughts, his love-object, an atypical muse, even after her death. She became, in his imagination, the very principle of love and an inseparable part of him: ‘I can only feel that oneness that I love, with you’, he told her in 1943. ‘I could identify myself with you utterly so that I felt like a single being that was me and you... Nothing ever compensated me for the loss of you’ (Stanley Spencer quoted in J. Rothenstein (ed.), Stanley Spencer the Man: Correspondence and Reminiscences, London, 1979, p. 72).
Spencer approached his portraits with the same meticulous attention to detail as he did his landscapes. The present work unites his tendency to treat each part of his subject and its surroundings with the same emphasis: the mauve and lilac flowers in the foreground are painted with such accurately rendered detail as the textures of Hilda’s dress and hair, and the weave of Stanley’s distinctive suit, that they further intensify the compelling intimacy of the scene.
Hilda with Bluebells demonstrates Spencer’s technical ability as a painter. It combines the intricacy of detail which characterises his landscape painting, with his distinctive and intimate evocation of time and place. In a number of Spencer’s landscape and garden pictures, the foreground flowers appear oversized, throwing the space beyond into deep recession. By using this compositional device here, Hilda in her vivid green checked dress, and tilted head, begins to mirror the swaying bluebells which dominate the foreground. She thus roots herself into Spencer’s memory of the place. This deep association of a specific place and a person had been used by Spencer in some of his earlier works, such as Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935, and this melding of differing elements of a composition gives an additional poignancy to the painting.
Much like his depiction of his marriage in the Domestic Scenes, in the present work, Spencer’s subjects are depicted blissfully engrossed, absorbed within their own private world. Behind Hilda, the artist portrays himself distracted, allowing our eyes to focus on Hilda’s introspective gaze. He presents himself as a much younger figure, perhaps a teenager, whilst the figure of Hilda is somewhat older – whereas in reality when they began courting, he was 30 and Hilda 32. Stanley’s pose here has an air of watchfulness about it, as though this position has been reversed and he is guarding Hilda whilst she absorbs herself in the flowers before her. Thus the artist appears to fulfil a complex role here: firstly, his disconnected, guardian-like presence in the background draws the viewer in, inviting us to share in his voyeuristic memory of a time of blissful happiness. At the same time, his youthfulness reminds us of Hilda’s passing, in a juxtaposition of times passed and moments present, where memory confronts reality. He is both a pictorial metaphor for his own memory, and the omnipotent artist and husband: rendering both Hilda, and his own recollection immortal, by the very act of painting.
Spencer’s skilful command of perspective further plays with this concept. Our eye is drawn in from the bottom of the canvas, level with the bluebells, as we look up from amongst the earth and leaves. And yet, along another perspective in the top half of the canvas, we are also observing from above, looking down on the scene unfolding below us. This mastery of composition serves to highlight a discernible religious connotation, as is prevalent in so much of Spencer’s output. Hilda’s presence is not just an evocation of her domestic role, arranging flowers whilst her suitor looks on. Her proximity to the ground and the oversized bluebells recall the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. This duality is a familiar motif in Spencer’s work, frequently uniting the spiritual with the secular.
Spencer often depicted himself in his paintings as younger, smaller and rather dependent on the women in his life, their presence protecting the diminutive Stanley. Here, the enlarged, dominating figure of Hilda engages us with the abundant springtime bluebells, the emblem of fertility, as Stanley, smaller, younger, crouches and crawls behind her. Spencer’s own boyish appearance, common in his paintings after 1927, points to another ambiguity in their relationship: Spencer seems to have subconsciously viewed Hilda, not only as a wife, but as a mother figure, a pseudo-oedipal personality who would give unquestioning support to his activities (see K. Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, p.138). However, the irony of Spencer’s unfortunate situation is revealed, as Spencer seeks to represent perfection in his art, even when it proved impossible to achieve in real life: the artist willing to achieve perfection after Hilda’s death.
The present work was exhibited in 1980 at Spencer’s retrospective at the Royal Academy, London, alongside Hilda and I at Burghclere (sold in these Rooms on 25 June 2015, lot 90, for £2,938,500) and Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Conversation Between Punts (sold in these Rooms on 20 November 2013, lot 5, for £6,018,500), both painted in the same year as Hilda with Bluebells. Two studies for the present work were sold in these Rooms, in the Stanley Spencer Studio Sale, 5 November 1998, lot 231.
The previous owner of Hilda with Bluebells was Wilfred Evill, a London solicitor whose clients ranged from trades unions to leading artists and arts figures. Evill began collecting in the late 1920s and continued with great fervour until his death in 1963, amassing a formidable collection of British art by living artists: Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, William Roberts and Graham Sutherland. Evill first encountered Spencer whilst visiting the Behrend family at Burghclere in 1928, who had commissioned Spencer to paint the chapel’s murals. Evill soon began to act as Spencer’s lawyer and supported the artist through his financial hardship during his divorce from Hilda. Evill was prepared to accept Spencer’s figure paintings (which he had found harder to sell) in lieu of his fees. Thus it was testament to his patronage of the artist, and their genuine friendship, that at the heart of Evill’s collection was the single most important collection of Spencer’s narrative work to exist in private hands. The sale, including the present work, took place in June 2011, and set a benchmark for important works by Stanley Spencer.