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Lot 160: CHARLES SPENCELAYH 1865-1958

Victorian & Edwardian Art

by Sotheby's

December 14, 2006

London, United Kingdom

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measurements note
58 by 43 cm., 23 by 17 in.

signed l.l.: C. SPENCELAYH.

oil on canvas


Bought by the father of the present owner from G. M. Lotinga Fine Art Galleries, December 1950


Royal Academy, 1941, no. 412


Aubrey Noakes, Charles Spencelayh and his Paintings, 1978, p. 182


'These patriotic paintings certainly performed a useful service as morale-boosters at a time when people desperately needed cheering up. For World War II affected everybody...' (Aubrey Noakes, Charles Spencelayh and his Paintings, 1978, p. 58)

Charles Spencelayh was greatly inspired by WWII, but not by the horrors and heroism of the soldiers or the tragedy and victory of the battles. He was moved by the defiant patriotism of the men and women left in Britain to guard the home front, particularly the men who, too old to fight, pinned Union Jack's to their lapels and hung photographs of Winston Churchill on the walls of their parlours. The present picture depicts an old gentleman peeling the vegetables grown in his back garden, when British gardeners were urged to dig up their prized roses and geraniums and replace them with neat rows of cabbages and potatoes to aid the war effort. The inspiration for the painting was probably James, Spencelayh's own gardener who had posed for Why War?

Spencelayh's first major painting inspired by WWII was Why War? of 1939 (Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston) which was the sensation of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and bought by the Corporation of Preston on the opening day of the exhibition. The picture was reviewed in at least seventy newspaper articles and was issued as colour print by The Tatler to great success. In 1940 Spencelayh painted his second patriotic picture There'll Always be an England (private collection) which was voted 'Picture of the Year' by visitors to the Academy. The present picture was painted in the following year and exhibited at the Royal Academy as Dig For Victory although it has also become known as The Wise Eat More Potatoes. Spencelayh continued to paint pictures inspired by patrioticism and the war, Winning the War (sold in these rooms, 17 March 1999, lot 132) and "Here's to Victory" (sold 11 March 1998, lot 168) being particularly fine examples. Dig For Victory was one of the first pictures painted at St Mildreds, the house that Spencelayh and his wife moved into at 105 London Road in Bozeat in 1941.

On the wall in the background in Dig For Victory is a copy of the well-known 1878 American lithograph by Currier & Ives entitled The Crowd that Scoops the Pools depicting the joyous celebration of stable boys and rich race-horse owners. The inclusion of this print was probably not incidental and it would seem that Spencelayh was seeking to suggest the unifying power of victory to blur economic divides, whether it be a horse race or a world war. Other items in the painting have their own symbolic significance; the press-cuttings of Adolf Hilter being particularly poignant. The stuffed barn owl set in a mini diorama of barley (one of the items which survived the bombing at Spencelayh's house in Lee) has rural associations and is also suggestive of the threat from the war upon the traditions of the British countryside. The earthenware pitcher, battered kitchen table and the straw vegetable-bag are suggestive of time-worn domesticity and the reassuring familiarity of commonplace objects.

Charles Spencelayh's endearing images of mature men, in humble interiors and involved in domestic every-day activities, remain eternally popular for their sensitive and humorous depiction of genteel maturity. His rendering of bric-a-brac details and typically English interiors make his pictures immediately accessible. As Aubrey Noakes has explained; 'Much of Spencelayh's work now appears to me to possess a nostalgic quality about it. The agreeable clutter of inherited possessions, common enough in most households early this century, and even between the wars, is becoming more and more of a memory as people find themselves crammed into flats and pressured into the purchase of modern purpose-built furniture.' (ibid Noakes, p. 32)

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