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Wildflower Blues - Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton

Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece, undated, photograph © Dorothy Hepworth Estate

A new exhibition " Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece: An Untold Story" opened last week at Charleston in Lewes. Hepworth and Preece met while students at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1977. From very early on in their relationship the pair decided that the more outwardgoing Preece would be credited as the painter of Hepworth's artworks, the latter being by far the better artist (she got a first with honours at the Slade whereas Preece only received an ordinary degree). The pair moved to the village of Cookham in Berkshire and were inseparable for the next 49 years until the death of Preece in 1966. Hepworth lived for a further 12 years, still signing her paintings in her partner's name. In 1929, however, Preece met and later married artist Stanley Spencer after his first wife divorced him, due to his infatuation with her. Even though Preece and Hepworth continued their relationship, openly living together, and Preece refused to consummate their marriage, the besotted Spencer signed over the management of his finances to Preece, and allowed her to rent his country house out, forcing him to live in a bedsit in Swiss Cottage. The writing was on the wall early on after the marriage, when Preece and Hepworth went to St Ives on the honeymoon, while Spencer remained behind in Cookham to "finish a painting".

The tagline and theme for the exhibition in Lewes focuses on the pair's "secret artistic collaboration and lifelong romantic partnership" and again and again emphasises "the untold story of the pair’s collaborative approach to making and selling work". While the story of their relationship is compelling and fascinating, it is one of several narratives that could have been employed as the subject of the exhibition. A different narrative could have been an "out of the shadows" celebration of the art of Dorothy Hepworth, for so long accredited to Preece, after all, Preece herself, in her diary, stated she had precious little to do with the painting of them, save for often being the model. But current trends have prevailed so that they are presented here as creative collaborators, rather than a life (and love) partnership, thereby celebrating their lesbianism, as well as their triumph as women succeeding in an artworld dominated and run by men.

In the launch speeches, they were referred to as living in a time where cohabiting women were subjected to much persecution, a pronouncement that evinced much nodding and knowing looks from those present, although anyone with any even negligible knowledge of the 1930's onwards would know that it was gay men who suffered the persecution, not women. The sexual act between gay men was a crime, whereas women living in the same house were usually considered to be spinster "companions", or even "on the shelf".

The idea that they were a partnership raises intriguing questions: should the much maligned "Willy" be reinstated as co-author of the "Claudine" novels by Colette; should Lee Miller be credited as co-artist on Man Ray's groundbreaking "solarisation" photographs (very probably yes); and should numerous spouses of artists or authors be retrospectively acknowledged as co-producers, such as, for example, Rudyard Kipling's wife, Caroline Starr Balestier Kipling, who handled all his financial and domestic affairs, and guarded the entrance to his study like a bearskin at Buckingham Palace, or Effie Gray, Millais' wife and model? And so on.

Another narrative is whether the pair, or Preece at least, treated Spencer fairly. Another, whether their exploitation of him was just return for a member of the patriarchal art world; or even for the obsessed Spencer as a personification of the "male gaze".

All of these are true to a lesser or greater extent, but the need to market the exhibition through them must not be permitted to distract from the biggest truth which is that Hepworth was a terrific artist and that the exhibition contains many really good pictures.

In 2012, Samantha Parton, bandmate of Jolie Holland in the Be Good Tanyas (see last post and previous), was in a car that was struck from behind by a pickup truck. She suffered severe concussion and later, during her recovery, medical procedures on her head revealed an aneurysm behind her left eye that required surgery, along with the removal a benign tumour. It took time for Parton to recover, both physically and neurologically, and her condition affected her playing of music; four years later, she was suffering an understandable lack of confidence when Holland rang her out of the blue, and suggested they make an album together.

After a short recuperative tour, the duo entered the studio to record the "Wildflower Blues" album, released in 2017. Although Jolie Holland writes and takes lead vocal on most of the tracks, Parton co-authors four of them and sings and plays on all of them, including the title song. She's also an accomplished producer, and co-produced the record, so this is definitely a partnership, not just Holland doing her a favour, though one has to laud the latter's intentions and timing when she picked up the phone to call her friend.

All artists need help and support at one time or another in order to be successful, or even, sometimes, just to get back on their feet.

Parton takes the lead vocal on the title track, a piece of laid-back psychedelia that sounds like something you can't quite place from the early seventies; maybe that's why it gets under your skin, and becomes the background music in your brain as you mow the lawn or potter around the vegetable patch.

"I'm a wildflower and I'm growing like a weed...

All the bees come down from heaven, make honey out of me."


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