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Spence, Percy Frederick Seaton (1868–1933)

by M. A. Miles

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Percy Frederick Seaton Spence (1868-1933), artist, was born on 14 December 1868 at Balmain, Sydney, seventh child of English parents Francis Spence, civil servant, and his wife Hannah, née Turnbull. Francis held a government appointment in Fiji where Percy spent his youth and painted some competent water-colours.

Back in Sydney by 1888, Spence worked as an illustrator for the Daily Telegraph, Illustrated Sydney News and the Bulletin. He was an original member of the Brush Club, a group founded by D. H. Souter within the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales. Spence entered oils and water-colours in the society's annual exhibitions in 1888-94 and became a council-member in the early 1890s. He designed a book-plate for J. L. Mullins in 1892 and his painting, 'The Ploughman', bought by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, was hung in the 1893 Chicago exposition.

Sharing a studio with W. Lister Lister in George Street, Spence gained a reputation as a portraitist. He made two drawings of Robert Louis Stevenson in Sydney in 1893: the first was torn up because it displeased the writer's wife; the second is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. E. J. Brady, whose stories and poems he illustrated, remembered Spence's 'wide-brimmed hat with the folded turban, [and] his handsome, joyous face'.

At Ashfield on 30 January 1894 Spence married Jessie Wright with Congregational forms. They went to England for a year. Two daughters were born in Sydney in 1895 and 1896 before they left again for London in 1898. Able to work with rapidity, Spence contributed to the Graphic, Sphere, Illustrated London News, Punch and other journals. He illustrated Britain's Austral Empire (1901) and several adventure books. A member of the Chelsea Arts Club, from 1899 he exhibited with the Royal Academy of Arts (twice being 'placed on the line') and the Walker Gallery, Liverpool.

Spence returned to Sydney in 1905-06, and in 1909 to work on a series of water-colours for (Sir) Frank Fox's Australia (London, 1910). These illustrations, however, lack the vitality of his black-and-white work. In 1914 Spence completed a large commissioned painting, 'H. M. Australian Fleet arriving at Sydney Heads', and returned to London to arrange for its presentation, with a water-colour of Rear Admiral George Patey, to King George V; both works are now in Buckingham Palace.

From 1915 until about 1926 Spence had a studio at 4 Edwardes Square, Kensington, which he shared with Phyllis Spence, figure and portrait painter, possibly his daughter. During World War I he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He made at least one further visit to Sydney in the early 1920s. Suffering from chronic nephritis and diabetes, Spence died of uraemia on 3 August 1933 in Middlesex Hospital, London, after an eye operation.

An artist of great versatility, Spence is best remembered for his portraits, many of which were highly praised by his contemporaries, although some were criticized for lack of character. His portraits of Sir George Dibbs, Sir Sydney Jones and Justice Richard O'Connor are held respectively by the Mitchell Library, the University of Sydney and the High Court of Australia, Canberra. A. J. Hanson's pencil portrait (1892) of Spence is in the Dixson Galleries.

Select Bibliography

  • (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales, Annual Reports, 1893-94 and Annual Exhibition Catalogues, 1888-94, 1905
  • R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, Father of Australian Landscape Painting (Melb, 1935)
  • Australian Art Review, 1 Apr 1899, p 20, 1 Dec 1899, p 30
  • All About Australians, 4, June 1905, p 255
  • Catholic Press, 12 Jan 1905
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Sept 1933
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales newsclippings, 1905-06, 1914, 1933
  • O. B. McCarthy scrapbook (State Library of New South Wales)
  • E. J. Brady autograph letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A. G. Stephens, Australian Authors, Artists, Musicians (typescript, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

M. A. Miles, 'Spence, Percy Frederick Seaton (1868–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spence-percy-frederick-seaton-8601/text15021, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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