This early 20th-century etching by British artist Charles Spencelayh depicts a man moving home with only a few bare essentials. His dejected look speaks volumes and it’s a typically observant commentary by Spencelayh, a master of poignant scenes.
Charles Spencelayh was a rare breed of artist who avoided the usual trappings of the ever-evolving philosophies of 19th/20th-century British art. Raised in Rochester, Kent, his father knew Charles Dickens and it was upon a post-Dickensian canvas that his early associations were formed. At just eight years, he would copy works by the old masters and sell them locally for 7s 6d. And before too long, he found himself studying at the South Kensington art school where a tight regimen furthered his attention to detail.
He painted what he knew, local people in rustic cluttered interiors, often immersed in antique paraphernalia. Each scene containing a distinct narrative communicated through a clever title. He pondered over titles, recognising their importance in terms of context, and usually opted to reference relatable topics and current affairs.
His various homes were a veritable feast for the eyes and stacked high with antiques - oil lamps, prints, stuffed owls, umbrellas and grandfather clocks. It’s said that he owned so many jugs that he named one room ‘The Juggery’. This array of interesting goods enabled him to paint from life and he would arrange a room to suit a composition, also borrowing items that he didn’t own personally. His attention to detail led to the critics dubbing him ‘a human camera’ and his works carry significance in terms of social history.
Despite his hyperreal portrayals, he was never elected a member of the Royal Academy even though he exhibited there numerous times (along with the Paris Salon). This was primarily due to his lack of adherence to changing fashions. He approached art with a sense of stoicism and painted the same way throughout his career. However, his scenes did gain the attention of Royal patrons with Queen Mary particularly fond of his approach. He was asked to contribute to her magnificent dolls house, for which he created a stamp-size drawing of King George V.
Following a move to Northampton, he was often interviewed by journalists who were curious about his arrival. One such report references his down-to-earth personality.
“Mr Spencelayh does not surprise one by his courteous and warm welcome. His pictures bespeak the gentleman, but his personality does mildly surprise at first for he does not, even remotely, conform to the conventional artist. He does not wear fantastic clothes and weird colour schemes; his hair does not fall on his shoulders and he does not affect a casual indifferent tone in conversations. But then, Mr Spencelayh has been exhibiting in the Academy for the past fifty-two years off and on, and belongs to a generation of artists who learned to draw, in preference to being pseudo-intellectuals. He is a small man with very bright, active brown eyes. Those eyes are symptomatic of his whole character, for he is very much alive and interested, and always ready to make a quick joke, particularly against himself.”
In recent decades, Spencelayh’s works have attracted a new audience with several reaching over £100,000 at auction. He was an affable man that took every day in his stride and he’s surely looking down at these eye-watering sums with a wry smile.
Signed in the lower right, framed and glazed.
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Medium: Etching on paper
Overall size: 13” x 16” / 33cm x 40cm
Year of creation: c. 1930
Condition: Artwork presents well.
Artist’s auction highlight: £280,000 achieved for an oil painting in 2009.