For more than half a century this portrait in Swindon Art Gallery has been simply titled Seated Figure and dated 1952 without reference to the extraordinary life of the sitter.
It’s possible the artist Leslie Cole was unaware of the scandalous background of the model, even though she was his wife.
The 24-year-old he married in 1938 called herself Brenda Harvey. This is his lithographic impression of her a year or so earlier.
What the besotted suitor may have been unaware of is that she was not always called Brenda. When she was a teenager she was known as Barbara Harris – a key witness in the downfall of Harold Davidson, the infamous ‘Prostitutes’ Padre’.
This is Barbara in 1932 arriving at the hearing which resulted in Harold Davidson losing his job as Rector of Stiffkey and condemning him to mockery and humiliation.
In her evidence, Barbara alleged that she had been a victim of his unwelcome advances which the Rector denied. He said he had been concerned only with the welfare of Barbara and the hundreds of other girls he met on the streets of London. Asked why he befriended the pretty ones he replied it was because they were more likely to be led into sinful ways. With his help, he argued, some like Barbara could be rescued from prostitution.
Whatever the clergyman’s motives, the general consensus is that he was harshly treated and that the evidence against him, including Barbara’s testimony, was questionable, to say the least.
An account of the affair in Malcolm Yorke’s The Artistry of Leslie Cole (published by Fleece Press in 2010) sheds new light on the priest’s young accuser. With persuasive documentary evidence it charts the transformation of Barbara into Brenda exploring her unhappy childhood in Eastbourne, her teenage life on the capital’s streets, her court appearance and her meeting with Leslie Cole some five years later by which time she was calling herself Brenda Harvey and leading a Bohemian lifestyle as an occasional artist’s model.
Leslie Cole had a more conventional upbringing. He was born in Swindon and after studying at the town's art college was appointed a lecturer in lithography at Hull College of Art. The outbreak of hostilities brought new opportunities and before long he became an exceptionally well-travelled and distinguished war artist.
His extraordinary body of work took him to Malta, Sicily, Norway, Greece and Burma as well as to the death camps at Belsen.
In peacetime, he and Brenda settled into a ramshackle home and studio near Chelsea football stadium. Although Brenda became an accomplished potter, without the stimulus of war Leslie’s career went into decline. Even so, 28 of his paintings, including Seated Figure were shown at the Royal Academy.
The couple were unable to have children and in 1960, eight years after the Swindon Gallery portrait, Brenda had her left leg amputated after contracting cancer.
Nevertheless, with impressive determination, a year later she was demonstrating her pottery skills at the 'Boys and Girls' exhibition at Olympia, as this British Pathé footage shows.
Leslie Cole increasingly took to drink and died aged 65 in 1976. Brenda outlived him by 27 years. According to Yorke’s book, it was only shortly before her death that she told friends about her colourful past as Barbara Harris.
As for the ‘Prostitutes’ Padre’, he tried to cash in on his celebrity by taking part in a variety of stunts, the last of which was the death of him.
In Skegness in 1937, showing a characteristic lack of judgement, he got into a cage with a lion which killed him.
James Trollope, author and columnist