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How renowned artist Stanley Spencer's love triangle inspired Cavendish writer Lynn Bushell's latest novel

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From the moment he set eyes on her in a village tea room, he was smitten.

Renowned artist Stanley Spencer spent the rest of his life hopelessly in thrall to Patricia Preece – the woman who became his muse and, ultimately, his second wife.

But not only was he already married to Hilda – with whom he had two children – Patricia was in a lifelong relationship with her lover, Dorothy Hepworth, who she had no intention of deserting.

Author and artist Lynn Bushell
Author and artist Lynn Bushell

She refused to consummate her marriage with Stanley ... whose belief that, as an artist, he was entitled to continue relationships with both wives ultimately crashed in ruins.

Useless with money, he was obliged to carry on painting the kind of pictures that would sell to pay Patricia’s considerable expenses, and support his family, until he died.

In his later years, he became a familiar figure wandering the lanes of his home village of Cookham, pushing an old pram carrying his canvases and easel.

When novelist and artist Lynn Bushell learned about the tortuous love life of the man regarded as one of Britain’s greatest painters, she, too, was hooked.

It became the theme of her latest novel, The Lovers and the Dustman, a book five years in the making that weaves together known facts about the central figures with imaginary scenarios.

All four were artists. Dorothy was so reclusive she was happy for the limelight-loving but less talented Patricia to sign her works and take credit for them.

Hilda was also a skilful painter. Despite Stanley wrecking their marriage, it is said he later acknowledged that she had been the love of his life.

Lynn Bushell
Lynn Bushell

“The characters are based on what they wrote about themselves and each other, and what was said about them,” said Lynn.

“No one could suggest that Stanley Spencer was an easy man to live with. He believed that sex was a link with the divine and that, as an artist, he was entitled to have as many women as he needed.

“When he met Patricia in a Cookham tea-room in 1929, it was love at first sight.

“He persuaded his wife, Hilda, to divorce him, while still hoping that the three of them could come to ‘an arrangement’. He married Patricia a week later.

“His obsession with her was totally consuming. Her dependence on her long-time lover, Dorothy, was similarly all-embracing. It was never going to end well.

“Stanley’s first wife was his soulmate. That was the sad thing. She understood him and was possibly the only person who actually liked him, and thought he was a genius.

“When he was knighted in 1959, Patricia, who was still living with Dorothy while refusing to give Stanley a divorce, delighted in taking the title ‘Lady Spencer’.”

But, even though Patricia appears to be an unsympathetic character, Lynn decided to tell the story through her eyes.

“History doesn’t have a good word to say about her,” she says, “so when I set out to write The Lovers and the Dustman, I decided I would make her the narrator. I wanted her to have a voice, even if she damned herself with it.”

But the closer Lynn got to the story, the more she was able to identify with Patricia.

“I can certainly understand her exasperation with him. He never washed, and wore the same suit year in, year out,” said Lynn.

“When he went to collect his knighthood, he was wearing the same suit as when Patricia married him.

“The belief that God was on his side I find quite irritating and, in artists particularly, the thought that you can behave differently from the rest of the world.

“And he was so tactless, he didn’t have a lot of empathy. In a way, you can understand Patricia’s irritability.”

The book is Lynn’s fifth novel. The last one, Painted Ladies, also featured the women in the life of a celebrated artist – in that case French painter Pierre Bonnard.

She focused particularly on Renée Monchaty, the painter’s model, who met him when she was a teenager and he was 50, and who killed herself after he returned to his common law wife.

“I like picking an unknown character,” said Lynn. “Hardly anything has been written about Renée. I was not particularly interested in Bonnard or Spencer, but in the bit-part players.”

She admits to feeling nervous about basing novels on real people, saying: “It’s quite nerve-racking when you are writing about someone who lived.”

Lynn, who moved to Cavendish with her husband Jeremy Eldridge in the 1980s, just after she published her first novel, studied fine art and art history at Edinburgh.

Homage to Spencer - the painting by Derek Clarke which appears on the cover of Lynn's book
Homage to Spencer - the painting by Derek Clarke which appears on the cover of Lynn's book

The image used on the cover of her new novel is a painting of Stanley Spencer by Derek Clark, who was one of her tutors at Edinburgh College of Art, and a protegé of Spencer in the 1940s .

“It was wonderful to discover that unexpected link with the past. The image perfectly sums up the man himself,” she said.

Writing for Lynn was, at first, a way of financing her artwork. “I got a job on Vanity Fair magazine in the early 1970s on the basis of three of my articles they had published,” she said.

“On the strength of that, I got a job as a features editor.”

She recalls how comparatively easy it was then to get an interview with a major star. “In those days, you just had to ask,” she said.

“One of the pieces was called ‘A Day with Adam Faith’ – I met him at the Regent Palace Hotel, where Diana Dors was sitting at the bar.

“He had three shirts over his arm which he was returning to the shirtmaker.”

The interview was finished over a cup of tea in her flat. “My flatmate opened the door in curlers and wasn’t best pleased for him to see her like that,” she said.

Later, Lynn taught life drawing at Hornsea College of Art and, after moving to Cavendish, was a tutor at West Suffolk College.

For 30 years, she and Jeremy also owned a house in France, in an area which, as a painter, she found inspiring.

“That part of the Normandy coast has brilliant light, a beautiful conjunction of sea and sky and rocks, and it was very easy to sell those paintings,” she added.

The Lovers and the Dustman is available as a paperback at £12.57 or on Kindle at £4.92.

Lynn’s author page on Amazon is https://amzn.to/3KsinZL or she can be contacted by email at lynnbushellart@gmail.com.