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'Bowl and fruit on a table' by Dorothy Hepworth – £1400 at Canterbury Auction Galleries.

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“The most bizarre domestic soap opera in the history of British art.”

This was how the dealer-collector-researcher Michael Dickens described the relationship between the artist Stanley Spencer, his second wife Patricia Preece and the latter’s long-term lover and life partner Dorothy Hepworth.

Dickens, who died aged 77 in March, had spent a long period researching the three figures, all of whom trained as artists. He championed Preece’s work in particular which, although not in keeping with Spencer’s exalted visions, did have its own individual style and helped her establish a notable reputation in her own right.

Having staged and promoted exhibitions of Preece’s work and sold examples of her signed paintings, Dickens caused something of a stir in 1996 when he revealed that he now believed that Preece had not actually produced any of these works at all.

The ‘real’ artist behind Preece’s paintings was in fact Hepworth, something for which he found evidence from their joint diary entries.

Perhaps this should not have come as such a surprise – when they were students together at the Slade in London Hepworth received first-class honours while Preece simply got a pass.

While they were previously believed to have collaborated on certain pictures and miniatures, Dickens asserted that at some point it was only Hepworth who actually did the painting and Preece’s involvement was limited to aspects such as organising the arrangement of objects for her still-lifes, even though the works were exhibited and sold under her name.

“Patricia did very little painting in her life,” he said. “Dorothy allowed her to take credit for work she did not do.”

Pointing out that buyers of ‘Preece’ included luminaries such as Virginia Woolf, Edward Marsh and Kenneth Clark (her pictures also drew admiration from the critic Clive Bell), Dickens wrote: “The two women not only deceived the Bloomsbury artists, but also other notables in the art world, including Augustus John.”

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'Connie in blue and white dress' by Dorothy Hepworth – £420 at Canterbury Auction Galleries.

Hidden Hepworth

Given these circumstances, it is perhaps to be expected that the ‘shy’ Hepworth has not had much prominence over the years in terms of auction presence.

Although a small number of dealers and collectors have been keen on her work for some time now, not many examples have emerged on the market (although some have cropped up previously catalogued as by Preece).

Following Dickens’ death, a collection of paintings and studio pottery from his private collection came up at Canterbury Auction Galleries (20% buyer’s premium) on November 28-30 which included 18 works by Hepworth, although many were either signed or inscribed by Preece.

Dickens, who lived in Broadstairs in Kent, had been a client of the saleroom and overall the 62 lots raised a £27,960 total. A further 67 lots will also be offered on February 6-7 including sketches by Spencer himself and Laura Knight.

Also known as...

The 18 Hepworths in the current consignment were aptly catalogued as ‘Dorothy Hepworth (1894-1978) aka Patricia Preece (1894-1966)’.

All bar two got away for a combined hammer total of £6900. They sold to nine different bidders, one of whom was a Scottish private buyer who secured six lots.

The selection was a mix of still-lifes and figurative studies as well as a couple of landscapes, some of which had been painted during the time the two women lived together in Cookham (Spencer moved to the house next door in 1932).

Among the works in Canterbury was a three-quarter portrait of a sitter called ‘Connie’ in a blue and white dress darning a sock. The 2ft x 18in (61 x 46cm) oil on canvas was signed P Preece and dated 1948, while the stretcher was inscribed Patricia Preece and Moor Thatch Cookham, Berks. Estimated at £400-600, it sold online at £420 to a private buyer.

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'Portrait of a young woman wearing a bonnet' by Dorothy Hepworth – £520 at Canterbury Auction Galleries.

However, it was a painting of another young woman in a bonnet that made the highest price among the figurative works in the group, making £520 against a £300-500 estimate, also selling online to a private buyer.

While these prices do not seem excessive, they were in fact in line with, if not above average, in terms of previous auction sums for Hepworth, partly due to the fact that her works have never appeared regularly enough to build up momentum on the secondary market.

Landscapes on top

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'View of a West Country cove' by Dorothy Hepworth – £920 at Canterbury Auction Galleries.

The top sums among the group in Canterbury came for landscapes sold together as a single lot and a still-life. The former lot, a 20in x 2ft (51 x 61cm) oil on panel of a West Country cove offered together with three smaller panels, overshot a £150-200 estimate and was knocked down to a private buyer at £920.

An equally strong competition came for the painting of a bowl and fruit on a table which sold to the same buyer. The 2ft 1in x 2ft 9in (62 x 84cm) oil on panel was thought to be an earlier still-life and it seemed to show the influence of the Bloomsbury group artists on Hepworth’s work.

Pitched at £300-500, it took £1400, the highest Hepworth auction sum other than the £2600 for the portrait Girl Resting sold at Bloomsbury Auctions in November 2014.

Carline works

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'Fireplace' by Hilda Carline – £260 at Canterbury Auction Galleries.

The Dickens collection also included 25 works from members of the Carline family, which sold for sums between £60 and £760. The group included one by Spencer’s first wife Hilda Carline (1889-1950).

Hilda, who left the family home in Cookham and moved to Hampstead because of Spencer’s infatuation with Preece, rarely painted after this period. But Dickens had been able to acquire the 20½ x 16in (52 x 41cm) Fireplace from a member of her family.

Estimated at £200-300, it sold online at £260 to a trade buyer who also secured three further lots from the collection, including a pair of seascapes by Hilda’s father George Carline (1855-1920) that made £760 and was the top lot among the Carline works.