Charles Spencelayh

Rochester Castle


Not on display

Charles Spencelayh 1865–1958
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 225 × 610 mm
Purchased 1941


Spencelayh was born and grew up in Rochester, travelling from there each day to the South Kensington School (later renamed the Royal College of Art) 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. Spencelayh frequently returned to the cathedral city throughout his career, evidently making sketches for this painting on one of these visits. This landscape is unusual for Spencelayh who, according to the critic of The Manchester Guardian generally 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' (quoted in Noakes, p.53).

This view is from the Strood end of Rochester Bridge, looking across the River Medway to a wide panorama centred on the Norman castle situated on the hill top. The stone keep, built under the guidance of William the Conqueror's architect, Bishop Gundulf, was the principle part of the castle then remaining. At 113 feet (35m) high and 70 feet (22m) square it dominates the surrounding countryside. To the left of the castle Spencelayh includes the Norman cathedral. The monumental square tower, recently having undergone restoration work by Sir Gilbert Scott, overlooks the Kent town. The only activity in the scene is contained in the boat in the foreground which is sailing past the pier. The topographical accuracy of the picture is evidently Spencelayh's foremost concern in this view of his home town.

In 1896, one year after this painting was completed, Spencelayh began to exhibit at the Royal Society of Miniature Painters. His 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). Spencelayh continued to paint in this way throughout his career despite the popularity of Impressionism at the end of the nineteenth century.

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

Heather Birchall
June 2002

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Catalogue entry


Inscr. ‘Charles Spencelayh 1895’ b.l.
Canvas, 8 7/8×24 (22·75×61).
Purchased from the artist (Knapping Fund) 1941.
Repr: Studio, CXXIV, 1942, p.15.

The view is that seen from the Strood end of Rochester Bridge, looking across the River Medway to the Esplanade with Rochester Pier in the right foreground. On the hill stands Rochester Castle, built 1126–39 by William Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, of which only the square Keep remains. The painting shows it before the restoration of 1900. To the left of the picture is Rochester Cathedral, which dates mainly from the time of Prior William de Hoo (1201–27).

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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