A Favourite of Queen Mary and Evelyn Waugh
The Artist Charles Spencelayh: Revisited
In April 1958, at the age of 92, the artist Charles Spencelayh hand wrote his Last
Will and Testament. In a spidery hand he painstakingly itemised his possessions and
legacies. Among the household linen, a grey bedroom carpet and his wearing apparel are
‘the two silver framed Royal letters’. Written in the hands of Queen Mary and Princess
Marie-Louise, the personal letters acknowledge his contribution in the early 1920’s to the
celebrated Queen Mary’s Dolls House. Instigated by Princess Marie-Louise and inspired
by Queen Mary’s love of miniature objects, she acted as intermediary between the Queen
and the many skilled British artisans who were commissioned to make the fixtures and
fittings for the breathtaking dolls house designed by Edwin Lutyens, which can seen at
Windsor Castle. Spencelayh’s postage stamp sized portrait of George V is in perfect
Queen Mary was an admirer of Spencelayh’s work, buying works at the Royal
Academy Summer Exhibitions and commissioning at least one painting, which he
titled ‘The Unexpected’ due to his surprise at receiving the request. In 1954 the
Victoria and Albert Museum staged an exhibition of items from Queen Mary’s
collection and Spencelayh’s ‘The Three Queens’ hung in the entrance into the Main
Despite never being made an Associate of the Royal Academy, Spencelayh was
popular with visitors to the Summer Exhibition including the novelist Evelyn Waugh
who was influenced by ‘Why War?’ (1939) and is said to have based his character
John Plant senior in ‘Work Suspended’ on Spencelayh.
Born in Rochester in 1865, the youngest of 11 children, he was bought up by his
mother Elizabeth as his father Henry died before Charles was born. Henry Spencelayh
was an engineer and was said to have known Dickens. Charles was eight when he was
given his first set of paints and was soon copying Old Masters. If canvas was not
available he would use old scraps of wood or even tabletops and some of these early
works have survived. He attended The National Art Training School in South
Kensington and became a founder member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters,
joining in 1897. He also trained and exhibited in Paris around the turn of the century.
An all round artist, Charles worked in various mediums including oil, watercolour,
drawings, copper etchings, prints and sculpture.
Charles married Elizabeth Hodson Stowe at St. Paul’s, Penge in 1890. They
started married life in Chatham and Elizabeth’s occupation is shown as a tobacconist
in the 1891 census, a change of career from that of governess prior to her marriage.
Elizabeth’s early life is something of a mystery; she is described as a ‘nurse child’ to a
‘bedridden’ lady (who later adopted her) according to the 1871 census return for
Olney, Buckinghamshire, where she was born in 1864. He painted her many times – a
study entitled ‘My Pet’ shows a young Elizabeth in profile holding a dove and is a
The couple had one child, Vernon born in 1891, who became an accomplished
artist in his own right. He was taught by his father and in his own words was
“saturated” by his style. Vernon served as an officer in WW1 and was held as a
prisoner of war in Germany. A fine portrait by Charles of Vernon in uniform is owned
by The National Army Museum.
The years between the Wars were the pinnacle of Charles’ career. He spent the
1920’s under the patronage of Joseph Levy, a wealthy Manchester cotton merchant. His
main output during his ten years in West Didsbury were portraits of Levy’s circle of
Jewish acquaintances. In 1924 he painted an intimate portrait of Joseph’s wife titled
‘Rosie Levy taking afternoon tea at the Midland Hotel Manchester’ which shows his skill
in capturing rich fabric and reflective surfaces.
In the early 1930’s the Spencelayh’s moved south to Lee, but Elizabeth sadly died
in 1937 and was buried four miles away in Chislehurst Cemetery. Charles remarried,
another Elizabeth and in 1940 while living in St Mildred’s Road, Lee they were made
homeless during a bombing raid. Many paintings were destroyed which makes a
catalogue raisonné of his work virtually impossible, plus he had the confusing habit of
reusing titles. After a brief time in his first wife’s hometown of Olney, they settled a few
miles away in the Northamptonshire village of Bozeat, where they spent the rest of their
lives as popular members of the community. Always the Victorian gentleman, Charles is
remembered as acknowledging ladies in the street with a tip of his hat.
The Bozeat years of his long career are characterised by some of his best known
works, typified by elderly Bozeat residents who cheerfully posed for the promise of a
home cooked dinner. Charles would build room sized screens in his studio complete with
patterned wallpaper and ‘dressed’ from his collection of ‘props’. Travelling by bus to the
nearby market town of Wellingborough, Charles would stock up on art materials and bid
for yet more objet d’art at the local auction house. Toby jugs – stuffed birds – Windsor
chairs – clocks and cheap watches vie for attention with his favourite patriotic pictures of
Nelson and Royalty which he used repeatedly in his themed and titled compositions.
Despite his work finding favour with Royalty he never lost ‘the common touch’.
Visitors would leave with what he called ‘bread and butter pictures’ for cigarette money.
During the war years in Bozeat he would offer to paint the winner of fund raising raffles.
His work was reproduced on popular calendars and he undertook commissions for
advertising posters such as Goddard’s Metal Polish.
Detail below from ‘Nothing Like Leather’ painted when Spencelayh was 88 years old in
1954 and exhibited at the RA the same year. This large work is thought to be his homage
to the Northamptonshire footwear industry where many of his Bozeat sitters had spent
their working lives. After spending over fifty years in Canada (Charles had an agent in
Vancouver) it is now back in Northamptonshire.
A lifelong smoker, Charles would greet visitors with cigarette ash covering his
waistcoat and invite them to use the floor of his studio as an ashtray. A reporter from the
Northampton Mercury quipped “this season Mr Spencelayh is wearing Players”. He
would even include the spent matches littering the carpet in his compositions; such was
his meticulous attention to detail. An airmail letter to George Nuttall, his agent in
Vancouver, has tell tale burn marks; given the potential fire hazard and the often toxic
nature of traditional artist materials it is remarkable that he survived into his nineties.
By the late 1950’s his eyesight was failing but he continued to paint and had three
pictures ‘on the line’ at the 1958 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, including a
poignant work titled ‘The Faded Rose’. He first exhibited a miniature ‘Mrs Robins’ in
1892 and became one of the most prolific artists to show at the RA. Despite this he was
never made an Associate of the Academy, the reason for which is unclear. Charles had
his own theory which he jokingly shared with his Canadian agent George Nuttall in a
letter dated November 1956 “I do not know, unless I am not old enough, or work not
sufficiently good, which is my aim to yet improve although I cannot wear glasses to paint
eventually this will stop my efforts I’m sure of it”
He died in St Andrews Hospital, Northampton in June 1958 and after a funeral
service conducted by his friend and executor the Reverend W.C. Knight in the 12th
century church of St Mary the Virgin, Bozeat he made his final journey back to Kent and
was buried with his first wife in Chislehurst Cemetery.
Examples of his finest work such as ‘Stalemate’ – ‘Smile’ and ‘The Old Dealer’
found homes in provincial galleries and private collections, but his name began to fade
from popular memory during the 1960’s as his cluttered Victorian interiors became
unfashionable. In 1978 Aubrey Noakes published an illustrated hardback ‘Charles
Spencelayh and his Paintings’ which began a revival in interest for this most prodigious
British artist. Once again appreciated, his work commands strong prices at auction and
has found a new generation of admirers via the Internet.
Acknowledgements and sources:
Guildhall Museum, Rochester
Aubrey Noakes ‘Charles Spencelayh and his Paintings – Jupiter Books 1978
Anecdotal snippets from conversations with residents of Bozeat who knew Spencelayh
between 1941 and 1958
21st April 2016