Fantastical, nightmarish, sublime… There are many ways to describe the art of Sidney Sime, but now thanks to a Lottery grant the little known Surrey gallery holding his works is hoping to introduce him to a wider audience
In a small gallery appended to an early twentieth century village hall in Surrey sits a remarkable collection of artwork that is by turns phantasmagorical, fantastic and sublime.
Worplesdon might seem a strange resting place for the art of Sidney H Sime (1865-1941) but the Surrey village is where the reclusive artist and illustrator spent his final years, painting increasingly dark canvasses.
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The purpose-built Sime Art Gallery attached to Worplesdon Memorial Hall, which was built just after the First World War, is home to over 800 paintings, drawings and memorabilia by Sime, bequeathed to the Trustees by his widow, Mary Sime.
It’s an overused epithet, but the little gallery really is one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Now a £42,000 National Lottery Heritage Fund grant is helping secure the future of the unique archive of works of art that have lain quietly in this Surrey village hall for more than 60 years.
As well as being home to Sime’s artworks, the little gallery holds letters, books and personal memorabilia that were in his wife Mary’s possession when shed died. Subsequent acquisitions include personal letters and 36 caricatures of local men who frequented the New Inn pub nearby whom Sime drew.
Sime spent his early years down coalmines, but his extraordinary imagination and raw talent led him to Liverpool School of Art and a professional career as a renowned illustrator of books and magazines including the Idler and the Pall Mall Gazette.
He was patronised by wealthy aristocrats including the fantasy author Lord Dunsany for whom he produced book illustrations and Lord Howard de Walden who he worked with on theatre designs. His unique style, reminiscent of Blake, Rackham, Dulac and Beardsley, reflected the more macabre interests of the time and a fascination for the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
“He was a fascinating character,” says Worplesdon Heritage Trustee, Mary Broughton, who remembers first stumbling on the collection many years ago.
“I was being shown round the Hall and we passed a door and I said, “Oh I expect that’s where the brooms are kept,” and they said “no, that’s where the art gallery is”.
“They opened the door for me and it was like going up to your grandmother’s attic and finding an absolute chest full of gems. I was completely bowled over because this had been kept a pretty closed secret. It was open on appointment and there was – and still is – a curator, but it was very much hidden away.”
Broughton became a Trustee in 2002 and together with colleagues has been working to conserve the collection, bring in people with expertise and share the artworks more widely. In 2017 an exhibition of Sime’s work opened at The Lightbox in Woking, sponsored by their chairman, local auctioneer Chris Ewbank, who has devoted time to assessing and valuing the artist’s work.
This, in turn, proved a catalyst for painting conservation, planning and writing a book on Sime, giving talks and welcoming 7,000 visitors during the exhibition’s six week display.
In September 2018 a large fantasy oil painting was displayed in the Palazzo Roverella gallery in Rovigo, Italy, as part of the ‘Arte ed Magice’ (Art and Magic) exhibition. All of which has helped to tell the story of a remarkable man and his remarkable work.
“When I give talks on him it really reads like a Victorian novel,” adds Broughton. “He had this appalling time as a child, in 28 to 30 inches of the seam of a coal pit, being told all sorts of ghoulish stories, and it’s hugely important to know that when you look at his artwork.
“After he had his formal training at the Liverpool School of Art, he found his way into illustration, but he was definitely drawn to people with this same rather quirky, slightly sinister nature. Some of his drawings and pictures are quite dark and I’m sure he had many dark moments.”
Sime’s journey from the coal pits of Lancashire to the world of aristocrats, via the bohemian milieu of London clubs, theatres and music halls can be traced in his fine black and white illustrations, theatrical caricatures of actors, comedians and singers, drawings of beasts and dramatic oils of apocalyptic proportions.
It was Sime’s take on the sinister and the supernatural that caught the attention of the fantasy author Lord Dunsany who became an advocate and supporter of his work, and it featured in many of Dunsany’s fantasy novels at the turn of the century.
“When he went into the whole world of the magazines that flourished in the 1880s and 1890s he was also asked to do a series on the afterlife and another on hallucinations,” adds Broughton. “I suspect he dabbled in drugs himself at some point. He was certainly a smoker and drinker and he was fascinated by William Blake and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When you read some of these things they’re quite scary but of course the Victorians loved them.”
Sime’s position in the fin de siècle London art world saw him become a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and the Langham Sketching Club, which was a club that broke away from the Royal Academy, but, says Broughton, he was always an individual, resolutely eccentric, working outside the norms and the popular genres.
“That’s what seemed to attract him to people like Dunsany as much as his ability, I think the reason they became such close friends, was that they were both eccentrics.”
Dunsany was a member of the aristocratic Anglo-Irish, Plunkett family who lived in a medieval castle near Dublin. Sime was a regular visitor and Dunsany Castle still holds around 90 of his remarkable illustrations for the novels.
“We get a lot of the Dunsany followers who come from America,” says Broughton, “because they’re absolutely wrapped up in his fantasy writing and they find us through “the Dunsany trail”.
“wonderful canvasses that reflect his increasingly uncanny fantasy world”
But now the steady trail of visitors beating a path to the door is slowly widening.
“I think what’s helped us at the gallery has been that revived interest in Tolkien and the fantasy world. Ironically it was this interest that ended with the First World War and led to Sime falling into a complete decline – and probably depression.
“He had been doing fantastic things for De Walden, he was doing what he loved, he had enough money to live on, and then crash. Nobody wanted to know about fantasy any more.”
After a late call up to serve in the war, Sime was eventually invalided out of the army with an ulcer, after which he retreated with his wife Mary to their cottage in Worplesdon.
“He was going out and drawing a few of the night skies around here, and then he became quite obsessed with the Book of Revelation and The Apocrypha,” says Broughton. “But judging from his letters with De Walden and Dunsany, who were urging him on, he was becoming very disenchanted. He was not going to follow the new genres, he wasn’t going to go down that route.”
The result is a series of wonderful canvasses that reflect his increasingly uncanny fantasy world. He reluctantly took part in a couple of London exhibitions in the 1920s and published a book in 1923 called ‘Bogey Beasts’ comprising of 15 full-page black and white drawings of fantastic beasts, each accompanied by a ‘jingle’ with a musical score composed by his friend and fellow devotee of Edgar Allen Poe, Joseph Holbrooke.
But apart from some book cover work and popping over to the pub to draw caricatures of locals, Sidney H Sime, faded into obscurity.
“The very fact that he’s got this small granite headstone in the local churchyard shows he just wanted to be hidden away under the trees – not anywhere where it’s very visible,” says Broughton. “I have to put a sign up to show it!”
There may still be a long way to go to bring the life and work of Sime out of the shadows, but Broughton and her colleagues are determined the talents of this extraordinary artist and his fantastically sublime artworks are brought back into the limelight.
Art UK have catalogued and published all 132 of Sidney Sime’s oil paintings. See them on the Art UK website.
Find out more about the Sidney H Sime Art Gallery at www.sidneysimegallery.org.uk
Watch a film about the Sidney Sime Gallery below: