Summary

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