Francis Speight was born on September 11, 1896 in a rural area of eastern North Carolina. He was the youngest son of a Baptist minister and farmer, and he spent his childhood helping his father in the fields. His parents hired tutors to provide primary education, and he entered grade school at age eleven. He later attended Lewiston High School, but left before graduating and enrolled at Wake Forest College in 1915. While there, one of his sisters encouraged him to seek out art lessons with Ida Poteat, an instructor at nearby Meredith College. Speight credited his first teacher with showing him how to see beauty in the everyday and for promoting art as an essential part of living a good life.
In 1917, Speight was drafted into military service due to the United States’ entrance into World War I. Though he trained at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, he was never deployed and in 1920 he enrolled at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. Shortly after arriving at the school, Speight viewed an exhibition of paintings by the artist Daniel Garber. He admired the work so much that he left the Corcoran and sought out Garber’s instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Speight attended the Academy from 1920 to 1925. During these years, he often traveled around the area in search of inspiration. One of his favorite destinations was the hilly industrial town of Manayunk, in the Schuylkill Valley just outside of Philadelphia. It is for these depictions of blue collar neighborhoods and the surrounding hills that he is best known. Speight’s painting style remained representational throughout his life, however his images are not exact renderings, but rather lyrical interpretations. Speight was particularly interested in the light and the atmosphere of a place, and he often portrayed the sky to denote a certain mood.
In 1923, Speight won the coveted Cresson Scholarship which he used to finance a trip to Europe. Following graduation from the Academy, he began his teaching career as Daniel Garber’s assistant. He was first listed as a teacher in the school catalogue in 1931 and served as an art and design instructor for almost forty years. The Academy assigned Speight to act as the drawing instructor at the Country School extension campus in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. While there he met a young art student named Sarah Blakeslee. Despite the sixteen year age difference, the couple became friends and eventually married in 1936. They had two children, a son named Thomas, and a daughter named Elisabeth.
In 1961, the family moved to Greenville, North Carolina where Speight became the artist-in-residence at Eastern Carolina College. He returned to Pennsylvania every summer to teach summer classes at the PAFA until 1979. Speight won many awards and honors throughout his career and was elected a member of the National Academy of Design in New York in 1940. In 1960, he was named a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Francis Speight died of cancer in Greenville, North Carolina in 1989. He was 93 years old.