- Charles Spencelayh
the old dealer (the old curiosity shop)
- signed l.r.: C. SPENCELAYH.
- oil on canvas
- 51 by 61cm., 20 by 24in.
Bought from the artist by Mr Levy of Manchester in 1925;
Thence to his widow Mrs Rosie Levy, by whom sold Sotheby's, 30 January 1946, lot 125, purchased 'Levy';
Mrs Louise Briscoe, by whom sold Christie's, 27 July 1973, lot 187 bought 'Green';
Richard Green, London;
'The quintessential Spencelayh. After it was shown at the Royal Academy, the artist was inundated with enquiries as to the location of the 'old curiosity shop' from people who wanted to buy the objects.' Aubrey Noakes, Charles Spencelayh and his Paintings, 1978, opposite p.32
Charles Spencelayh's endearing images of aged 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, p. 32)
The Old Curiosity Shop was described in 1978 by his biographer Aubrey Noakes as 'the work which conveys the quintessential flavour of Spencelayh at his riotous best ...his masterpiece' (ibid pp.61-62) five years after it was sold at auction for £11,025 the highest sum ever achieved for a painting by Spencelayh. This picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1925 with the title The Old Dealer and was a great success. The amiable shopkeeper looks up from painting an old wire bird-cage to greet the viewer as he would welcome a potential buyer in his shop. It was this humorous interaction between the audience and the figure in the picture that made it so popular. Its popularity was also due to the wonderful array of objects depicted, many of which were things that the average visitor to the Academy in 1926 would recognise as items that they had in their own homes. Spencelayh was inundated with letters from admirers, many of whom were enquiring about whether they might purchase items of furniture and bric-a-brac from the painting 'from the doll's house with a Noah's arc balanced above it, to the fine lacquered tray in the foreground leaning against a Windsor chair' (ibid, p.62). As most of the items had been borrowed from friends and already returned, Spencelayh had to disappoint his correspondents.
At least some of the items were Spencelayh's own property, including the Windsor chair that appears again in Arranging Flowers, the screen embroidered with an exotic pheasant that can be found in Pleased with his Lot and the Toby jug seen again in Lot Thirteen exhibited at the Academy in 1926. The stuffed crocodile seen in a glass case in The Old Dealer was used in A Doubtful Bargain, whilst the two of the paintings make a reappearance in A Rare Find. The bird-cage and wooden stand were used for Love Birds and Liberty is Sweet. It is entertaining to try to find other items from the collection of antiques and junk in The Old Dealer in other paintings by Spencelayh. Much of this furniture and decorations were out of fashion by the 1920s, relics of the Victorian age. Among the pictures and frames arrayed on the walls is a painting by John William Godward entitled Memories whose art was little regarded at this time and was sold in flea markets and junk shops for derisory sums. The Godward painting was given in 1929 to the Auckland City Art Gallery in New Zealand.
Spencelayh was 'a simple, uncomplicated man, happy in his work, and supremely fortunate in that after his happy childhood he married in succession, two kind, loving women who devoted their lives to seeing him happy and ensuring that nothing worried or distracted him from the main business of his life: painting, drawing, painting, drawing.' (Ibid, p.. 46) It was in 1892 that Spencelayh exhibited his first pictures at the Royal Academy, portrait miniatures of women which were followed in the next few years by similar pictures. He exhibited miniatures from various addresses in Chatham and New Brompton until 1912 when the Spencelayhs moved to Lee in Kent, near Blackheath and Greenwich where he painted the present picture. He had by this time begun to paint the old men in parlours and workshops for which he became famous.
In the early 1920s Spencelayh was ''discovered' by one of those fairy-tale providers who most of us thought had vanished with the wigs and brocade coats of the eighteenth century' (ibid, p.60). His name was Mr. Levy, a Manchester cotton merchant who had bought a painting by Spencelayh entitled Cinderella when on holiday in Harrogate. He and his wife had seen other pictures by Spencelayh at the Royal Academy but was disappointed to learn that they had already been sold. The attendant that worked on the door at the Royal Academy exhibition told Levy that he had Spencelayh's address and thus the artist and his patron became acquainted. Levy immediately bought two pictures from Spencelayh and, in the words of Mrs Levy; 'for a while he kept buying them. Then, he had a brain-wave, he wrote and asked Mr. Spencelayh if he could come and see him in Manchester. He offered him a house rent-free, for Mrs. Spencelayh and himself, and offered to double the sum of money Mr. Spencelayh was then making.' (ibid, p.60) Levy enjoyed watching Spencelayh work and suggested several Jewish subjects for him to paint, which sold very well. He also commissioned portraits of members of his family and arranged for twenty-three of his paintings to be exhibited at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. However it was his purchase of several important paintings by Spencelayh for sums as high as £600 and £700 that was most valuable to the artist. Among Levy's pictures were Old Coins depicting a numismatist inspecting his collection, Render unto Caesar depicting an old man with his income-tax return and The Empty Chair. The Old Dealer was the most important picture in Levy's collection and sold for the highest sum when auctioned by Mrs Levy in 1946.