In the 1920s’ and ’30s, the charismatic artist Patricia Preece, a graduate of the prestigious Slade School of Art, had successfully ingratiated herself into London high society. The paintings she exhibited at some of the city’s most upscale galleries were admired by many, including members of the intellectual and influential Bloomsbury Group, who often gathered at Charleston, the countryside home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, in Firle. But Preece was harbouring an extraordinary secret: none of the paintings were hers.

A century later, Charleston in Lewes is finally giving up the secret with Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: An Untold Story explaining how Hepworth, the real author of the artworks, was half of an extraordinary partnership that deceived both the art world and wider society. The exhibition tells the story of the couple’s collaboration through early drawings, photographs, letters and paintings, as well as two portraits of Preece by the celebrated painter Sir Stanley Spencer who would become entangled in their complex deception.

Great British Life: The pair were opposites and lifelong loversThe pair were opposites and lifelong lovers (Image: Dorothy Hepworth Estate)

During her time at Slade, the work of Patricia Preece failed to impress her tutors. While she graduated with a pass in 1919, fellow student Dorothy Hepworth achieved first class honours. The pair became romantically involved. Yet, in so many ways, they were opposites: Hepworth was shy and reclusive, while Preece was gregarious and flirtatious. Hepworth was a supremely talented artist, while Preece’s work was mediocre. But these differences were also their strengths, and the foundation of a symbiotic relationship that would make the two inseparable.

During the lovers’ time in London, where they shared a modest flat and studio in Gower Street, Preece became friendly with the painter and critic Roger Fry, a pivotal member of the Bloomsbury Group, and had him appraise a selection of the couple’s artworks. When Fry seemed taken with works produced by Hepworth, believing them to be Preece’s, Preece did not correct him − and so began the seemingly harmless dissimulation.

Hepworth would stay at home, working at her easel, while the more outgoing Preece became her face in the outside world, pretending to be the artist as she touted the work to galleries and private buyers. ‘It really suited their personalities and they could play to their strengths,’ says Emily Hill, the curator of the Charleston exhibition. Preece was the enabler, managing the business side of the operation: balancing the books, recruiting models, and even arranging still lives for Hepworth to paint. ‘She did a lot of work so that Hepworth could really just focus on painting,’ Hill explains.

Great British Life: Nude, oil on canvasNude, oil on canvas (Image: Dorothy Hepworth Estate./The Court Gallery.)

When hard times hit in the early 1930s and the duo struggled to cover the mortgage on their cottage in Cookham, Berkshire, there was no question of Hepworth stopping painting. Instead, Preece diversified: she worked in a café, she sold jam and she looked at renting out part of the house.

It was in Cookham that they were acquainted with Spencer, who became besotted with Preece. Despite having no intention of consummating the marriage or leaving Hepworth, Preece allowed Spencer to divorce his wife, the painter Hilda Carline, and marry her instead, creating a peculiar love triangle which, perhaps coincidentally or by design, gifted Preece and Hepworth with crucial financial support at a time when they were particularly vulnerable.

With her love for Hepworth forbidden by society, marriage to Spencer may have created a convenient distraction. But it was a marriage in name only. Preece took Hepworth on honeymoon and the pair continued to live together.

Great British Life: Girl with Yellow DressGirl with Yellow Dress (Image: Dorothy Hepworth Estate./The Court Gallery.)

In art history, this unconventional arrangement with Spencer has tended to overshadow Hepworth’s impressive oeuvre, something which the Charleston exhibition hopes to rectify with this first ever retrospective. ‘Her works are fantastic and deserve to be seen,’ says Hill.

Hepworth’s paintings reveal the influence of French Post-Impressionism, with which the couple were well-acquainted having spent several years studying in Paris, passing themselves off as sisters, though born just seven months apart. ‘She had a kind of sombre, warm, complex treatment of paint,’ says Hill, who also identifies ‘earthy tones’ and ‘a simplicity about her work’ as hallmarks of her style.

Kenneth Clarke, the former director of the National Gallery, and the painter Augustus John, both bought works, with John extolling Preece as one of the top women artists in the country. There was also ‘amazing support’ from the Bloomsbury group, who ‘really believed in her’, says Hill. Bloomsbury member and art critic Clive Bell, who wrote a foreword for one of her shows, noted the psychological quality of her portraiture, while his wife, the artist Vanessa Bell, wrote that the misnamed artist was ‘gifted and very serious and needs encouragement badly’.

Great British Life: Reclining Moor ThatchReclining Moor Thatch (Image: Dorothy Hepworth Estate./The Court Gallery.)

At least one of Hepworth’s drawings still resides in Monk’s House near Lewes, the former home of Vanessa Bell’s sister, the most famous Bloomsbury member of them all: the writer Virginia Woolf. But Woolf created a dilemma for the couple when she invited Preece to paint the portraits of her friends beyond the hidden confines of her own studio. ‘There was quite a bit of back and forth,’ recounts Hill. ‘They had to keep making up excuses in order not to reveal their secret, which must have been difficult because they could have really done with the money at the time.’

Commissions were problematic if the paintings were to be signed in Preece’s name because it would be impossible to hide the true artist. Instead, Hepworth painted local villagers or used paid models, and then, to keep up the separation, sold the works through London dealers, facilitated by contacts such as Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant, who resided at Charleston.

Considering the secret they were keeping, and Hepworth’s natural shyness, it makes sense that much of her work is set inside. Four of the paintings in the exhibition are of the interior of their cottage. ‘They were really proud of it and loved the country lifestyle,’ Hill says. The exhibition also shares intimate sketches of Preece which were not shared in the couple’s lifetime since they betray, not only the painter’s real identity, but the couple’s romantic relationship.

Great British Life: Patricia Preece seated, drawing.Patricia Preece seated, drawing. (Image: Dorothy Hepworth Estate./The Court Gallery.)

The deception was morally dubious and doubtless exhausting to maintain, but it was a price both women were willing to pay to ensure the survival of this personal and professional partnership. The letters the couple left behind convey the tenderness of Hepworth and Preece’s lifelong love. ‘They talk about how much they miss each other, how they relish looking after each other, [and] how they miss each other’s bodies and speaking to each other,’ says Hill. Everything about the two suggests a deeply intertwined collaboration − they even shared a diary, taking it in turns to describe their day.

Hepworth would outlive Preece by 12 years, dying in 1978 aged 84, but to mark her devotion to her late companion, she continued to sign her paintings in Preece’s name. The pair remain together today, buried in a shared grave in Cookham Churchyard. The simple headstone reads: ‘united in life and in death’.

Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: An Untold Story is at Charleston in Lewes until 8 September 2024, admission £12.50, It is accompanied by a new book, The Secret Art of Dorothy Hepworth also Known as Patricia Preece, by Denys J. Wilcox.