Charles Spencelayh
No Watermark 1933

Artwork details

Charles Spencelayh 1865–1958
No Watermark
Date 1933
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 407 x 311 x 16 mm
Acquisition Bequeathed by Alice Creed 2001
Not on display


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.

No Watermark depicts an old man holding up a ten shilling note to the light attempting to find the watermark. The title of the painting reveals that he has acquired a counterfeit note. In contrast to many of Spencelayh's paintings, dense with items that he picked up in junk shops, the old man sits in a sparse interior. Spencelayh's early training as a miniature painter is evident from the highly detailed technique of the painting, a skill which earned him the label 'the Human Camera' by his contemporaries (quoted in Noakes, p.37). His sensitivity to light, which contrasts starkly with the darkened interior, recalls the work of seventeenth century Dutch painters who had been popular in the 1880s and 1890s in his youth. The picture appears to be a portrait of a friend or a model, although the scene is staged.

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 Victorian 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