Charles Spencelayh

Listening In

exhibited 1933

Not on display
Charles Spencelayh 1865–1958
Oil paint on wood
Support: 178 x 230 x 14 mm
Bequeathed by Alice Creed 2001


In 1957, one year before Spencelayh's death at the age of ninety three, the critic of The Manchester Guardian remarked of his paintings, 'Most of them depict old codgers - the obsolete slang rises unbidden - in junk-crammed interiors that will be of considerable interest to the social historian of the future' (quoted in Noakes, p.53). Spencelayh travelled from his home in Rochester to the South Kensington School (later renamed the Royal College of Art) each day throughout his training as an artist. He continued his studies in Paris before returning to England, first exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1892. For the next sixty-six years, Spencelayh regularly sent canvases to the Royal Academy exhibitions.

Listening In depicts an old man listening attentively to a startlingly modern wireless through a pair of head phones. His posture is rigid with amazement as he listens. The domestic interior dense with paintings and ornaments is characteristic of the artist. His son Vernon recounted: 'in his studio he would build on frames the room, sometimes even wall-papers, and hang the walls with what one could expect in a cottage of that date. He had rooms full of such junk' (quoted in Noakes, p.29). These items frequently reappear in Spencelayh's paintings and, according to Noakes, there were frequent enquiries about where various objects depicted could be purchased (Noakes, p.32). Spencelayh's early training as a miniature painter is evident from the highly detailed technique of the painting. Spencelayh's meticulous observation was noted by his contemporaries who described him as 'the Human Camera' (quoted in Noakes, p.37).

Spencelayh began his career in an age when meticulously painted narrative subjects were popular both among artists and the exhibition going public. The movement towards Impressionism at the end of the nineteenth century went unnoticed by Spencelayh who continued to paint genre subjects on a small scale throughout his career. He continued, however, to be supported by several influential collectors and patrons, including the wealthy Mancunian cotton merchant, Mr Levy, and Queen Mary. His paintings, dense with old-fashioned bric-a-bràc and comments about suburban society, have frequently been described as Dickensian. Both Spencelayh and Dickens were born in Rochester, frequently returning to the cathedral city throughout their careers. In his obituary in The Times the critic remarked 'His work was full of the spirit, of The Old Curiosity Shop in particular … he had a natural sympathy for the kind of man who keeps one - an old bachelor in his conception'.

Further reading:
Noakes, Aubrey, Charles Spencelayh and his Paintings, London 1978

Heather Birchall
June 2002

Display caption

Spencelayh grew up in Rochester. He trained at the South Kensington School (later renamed the Royal College of Art), and later in Paris. He made his debut at the Royal Academy in 1892 and continued to send pictures there for the next sixty-six years.

Listening In shows an old man listening attentively to a modern wireless. The subject matter was typical of the artist whose obituarist said he mainly painted 'old codgers - the obsolete slang rises unbidden - in junk-crammed interiors that will be of considerable interest to the social historian of the future'.

Gallery label, February 2004

Technique and condition

The painting is executed on a hardwood panel, possibly mahogany, about 14mm thick. The panel is in excellent condition. There is an opaque coating on the reverse of the wood and there are several labels attached directly to the panel (see conservation record). The panel has a c.1mm thick, smooth white ground, which covers the whole of the front surface of the panel (materials untested).

The paint appears to be oil. It is distributed to the very edges of the painting, although a thin line of white ground is visible at the top and bottom edges where the brushstrokes peter out. The paint is thinly applied, with fine brushstrokes, but the paint is fairly dense and opaque. There is a layer of reddish underpaint which is used to create texture and luminosity, by allowing it to show through the upper opaque layers, between brushstrokes. The palette is fairly restricted, consisting mainly of black, white and browns with accents of red, blue and green. The fine brushstrokes have a low, but crisp impasto, which remains intact. The paint is quite rich and glossy.

There is what appears to be an original natural resin varnish applied over the whole surface of the painting. It fluoresces green in UV light and is brushed uniformly across the image. There do not appear to be any painted additions or retouchings over the varnish. The varnish is slightly yellowed but in good condition. There is some surface dust embedded in the varnish.

The panel has painted wooden battens nailed into its edges which project a couple of millimetres beyond the front surface of the panel. These battens are laid directly into the rebate of the frame and act as protection to the painting. They seem to be part of the original structure of the painting and are therefore to be left in place and incorporated into the new framing.

Annette King
April 2001

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