British artist Charles Spencelayh was hailed in his time as the ‘modern Meissonier of British domestic life.’ His scenes, ranging from moments of high emotional turmoil to the mindless actions of the every day, saw him highly praised and celebrated across his 70-year career. With his meticulous eye for detail, he was nicknamed the ‘human camera.’
Born in Rochester and the son of an iron and brass founder, Spencelayh began painting at the age of nine. ‘When I was born they ran out of silver spoons, so a paintbrush stuck in my mouth!’ Spencelayh himself joked. Indeed, a natural affinity for the craft was evident, and soon enough Spencelayh was studying at the National Art Training School in Kensington (later the Royal College of Art). Here, he would win a prize for a figure drawing, foreshadowing his future success in the depiction of people and characters.
Spencelayh would go on to study and exhibit in Paris for a time at the Salons, however, it was to Britain he returned, and he would find much success at the Royal Academy. Here, he captured attention with his characterful figures, lodged in painstakingly detailed interiors. These genre scenes would become the hallmark of his painterly style and subject matter and were so successful they made him the foremost genre scene painter of the early 20th century.
During the 1920s, Spencelayh found patronage from cotton merchant Joseph Levy. It was these works produced in between the wars, as well as his work during the Second World War, which would define his career.
‘Why War’ was his most resounding piece. It was awarded ‘Picture of the Year’ at the Royal Academy, and many newspapers advertised the selling of prints to the mass public. With characteristic coherency and realism, Spencelayh presents the maudlin figure of a pensive World War One veteran, contemplating the looming threat of another war.
Spencelayh mixes the delightful with the devastating. Glorious flowers are set in a vase, breakfast is laid out on a cheery gingham cloth across a table. The pleasant thrum of everyday life runs through the piece, the veteran’s life is presented around him in the interior. Yet, the newspaper resting on an empty chair acts as an omen, a headline warning of war. The gas mask resting on the table is a threat. The man’s hands are clasped in a dignified, quiet action of worry. His eyes are downcast, staring at his anxieties, his dread. The grandfather clock behind him, perhaps used only to dictate the days’ activities, now becomes a ticking timebomb.
It was his ability to capture the mood of the nation, its fear and anxieties, the strange paradox of the every day continuing to thrum along whilst death and destruction raged across Europe, that made Spencelayh’s war works so popular.
Yet his light-hearted pieces also found much success. With the same intricate attention to detail, Spencelayh conjured a man relaxing by the fire reading a newspaper, or an elderly gentleman fixing a barometer. There is a celebration of the everyday in his works which, married with his astute style and sophisticated composition, easily renders a depth of perspective, and creates elegant art.
It is no surprise, then, that Spencelayh would exhibit frequently at the Royal Academy over nearly 60 years. He was also an honorary member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, as well as the Vice-President of the British Watercolour Society.
As well as his genre paintings, Spencelayh was also an accomplished portrait painter and executed a number of landscapes. Etching, too, was an art that he was trained in, and he also possessed a penchant for miniature painting. Indeed, he was a founding member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters. Spencelayh was an artist who understood many mediums, with the skill to stretch himself across all branches.
Spencelayh’s work proved popular not just with the public, but royalty, too. Queen Mary, widow to King George V, bought his painting ‘The Accident,’ upon seeing it hung in the halls of the Royal Academy. This led to a commission for a portrait painting of herself. Spencelayh would also contribute to Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, the finest of its kind in the world.
With his forthright approach to storytelling, communicated effectively through his masterful crafting of character and assiduous attention to detail, Spencelayh was often seen at odds with his modern contemporaries. His style, and his personal manner, were often referred to as ‘Victorian,’ his works were often compared to those of his 19th-century predecessor William Powell Frith (1819-1909). Yet clearly this style remained popular, and such was the quality of Spencelayh’s work that he was painting up until three weeks before his death in 1958. Perhaps his straightforward manner of storytelling was exactly what people needed in the unstable wartime period, especially when married to his effective communication of emotion.
Numerous works by Spencelayh are now held in galleries and museums across the UK, including at the National Army Museum and the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.
Born in Rochester, Britain.
Studied at the Royal College of Art.
Married Elizabeth Hodson.
Son Vernon Spencelayh born.
Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.
Exhibited frequently with the Royal Society of Miniature Painters.
Became a member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters.
Solo exhibition of works held at The Sunderland Art Gallery.
Wife Elizabeth died.
Awarded the Royal Academy ‘Picture of the Year’ for ‘Why War.’
Married Elizabeth E. Boxall.
Painting ‘The Accident’ purchased by Queen Mary.
Died in Northampton, Britain. Buried in Chislehurst Cemetery.