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The Fantastical Visions of a Forgotten Early-20th-Century Illustrator

Sidney Herbert Sime, "Woods and Dark Animals" (1865-1941), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Woods and Dark Animals” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)

Sidney Herbert Sime’s art seems to capture the point at which a dream becomes a nightmare. His early 20th-century illustrations for the fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany are like flashes of a dark reverie. A unicorn is tackled by wiry black dogs beneath a sky burning with stars in the 1924 The King of Elfland’s Daughter, while in the 1905 The Gods of Pegānaa strange hooded figure presides over a colossal book, the moon looming ominously in the background, and three long-necked flamingos flying overhead.

Sidney Herbert Sime, "Self Portrait" (nd), oil on panel board (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Self Portrait” (nd), oil on panel board (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK) (click to enlarge)

Sime is mostly remembered today for these black and white illustrations, although even they remain obscure. Yet they’re just part of a larger oeuvre of art, which included vibrant oil paintings where Sime densely layered mythical creatures and sprawling landscapes, often drawing over the whole piece with geometric patterns. Art UK, a recently launched online initiative from the former Public Catalogue Foundation in collaboration with the BBC, has over 180 digitized oil paintings from the Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery at Worplesdon Memorial Hall. This is the complete oil painting collection at the Gallery, located in the village of Worplesdon north of Guildford in Surrey, England.

At the end of his life, the then-reclusive Sime lived and worked in Worplesdon. After his 1941 death, his widow Mary offered his over 800-piece archive of drawings, paintings, and other ephemera as a bequest. The Gallery is open the first Wednesday of the month, Bank Holiday Mondays, and the annual Guildford Heritage Weekend, which this year is Friday, September 9 to Sunday, September 11. The weekend includes details on recent restoration of paintings, a visit to his grave, and a discussion of his caricatures of local people.

Often compared to William Blake, or his contemporary Aubrey Beardsley, Sime achieved his initial success through magazine illustrations, although he remained interested in oil painting as a way to visualize the uncanny. In H. P. Lovecraft’s 1926 “Pickman’s Model,” a tale of a crazed painter who captures the beasts that haunt his studio below the streets of Manhattan, Sime is cited alongside Gustave Doré and Anthony Angarola as an artist who “knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear — the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.” Lovecraft adds that there’s “something those fellows catch — beyond life — that they’re able to make us catch for a second.”

Illustration by Sidney Herbert Sime for Lord Dunsany's "A Dreamer's Tale" (1910) (via Wikimedia)
Illustration by Sidney Herbert Sime for Lord Dunsany’s “A Dreamer’s Tale” (1910) (via Wikimedia)
Sidney Herbert Sime, "Landscape Decoration" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Landscape Decoration” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)

There is something otherworldly about all of Sime’s art. Even a simple landscape is segmented by mosaic-like fissures, with odd creatures sometimes dancing like ghosts over the trees. Jade King, Art UK’s senior editor, describes in a February article the curious pattern that emerges from looking at Sime’s landscapes:

At closer inspection, I could see actual lines were painted over the landscapes, outlining clouds and trees. Did Sime paint these lines over his paintings because he saw shapes in the sky, trees and water? The “patterned” works are undated, and titles given by curators: I wondered, did Sime paint these in his eccentric later life, at the time when he was obsessing over the Vision of Saint John the Divine and the Apocalypse? Would it be too farfetched to wonder if the paintings communicated Sime’s glimpse of a “divine order” in nature?

King concludes that there’s no way to really know what Sime intended, as mystery was above all a theme of his work, possibly inspired by his first dour job in the coal mines near Lancashire. There Sime worked five years as a “pit boy,” enveloped by darkness, likely hearing stories of legendary creatures said to roam the burrowed tunnels. Down in those lightless spaces, he sketched some of his first drawings right on the walls, scratching the shapes of elves, goblins, and demons to dance in the lamplight.

Sidney Herbert Sime, "Waves" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Waves” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, "Trees and Imps" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Trees and Imps” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)

Later he worked as a linen draper and sign painter before studying at the Liverpool School of Art. In London, he found regular work with The Idler, London Illustrated News, Pall Mall Magazine, and other publications. Yet even at the height of his fashionable magazine illustration career in the 1890s, supported in part by an inheritance from his uncle, he remained something of an outsider, and that would help the fading of his reputation after his death.

Desmond Coke, who bought one of his illustrations, described a visit to Sime at Worplesdon in his Confessions of an Incurable Collector, noting that the artist “more than most alleged geniuses whom I have met, has something of the real spark in him — his shattering conversation, his knowledge of paints that he himself mixes with the loving care of an Old Master in his rustic cottage/studio, his recondite knowledge of the Apocalypse and, above all, his CONTEMPT FOR FAME.”

Mary Broughton, Trustee of the Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, affirmed that distance from the rest of the early 20th-century art scene in an essay for Art UK:

His reputation has languished for many years and his talent been neglected. However his own self-doubt, arrogance, individuality, and later laziness, contributed to this slide into anonymity.

His abhorrence of Exhibitions (“that last infirmity of senile kind”) and the effect of the First World War when artists tended to combine, join movements and become serious and socially conscious left Sime somewhat isolated, unlike others such as Arthur Rackham.

Nevertheless, Sime had a dedicated posthumous audience, particularly with the science fiction and fantasy world, such as Ray Bradbury who wrote that “in Sime there is no comfort. His dreams are dreams of death.” Even in his richly colored and textured oil paintings, there are lurking horrors, an inky whale menacing the stormy seas where tall ships are tossed, or a panther-like creature with a bright red tongue stalking a luminous forest. And something of those weird visions still surprises the more you look into the vistas of Sime’s imagination.

In the video below from the Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, you can see more of the distinct and eerie atmosphere conjured in his phantasmagorical art:

Sidney Herbert Sime, "Landscape Decoration" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Storm” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, "Illustrative" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Illustrative” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, "Illustrative" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Illustrative” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, "Illustrative Design of Fountain and Figures" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Illustrative Design of Fountain and Figures” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, "Landscape and Sky" (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Landscape and Sky” (nd), oil on canvas (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, "Landscape" (nd), oil on panel board (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)
Sidney Herbert Sime, “Landscape” (nd), oil on panel board (courtesy Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery, via Art UK)

View more art from the Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery online at Art UK. Guildford Heritage Weekend at the Sidney H. Sime Memorial Gallery in Worplesdon Memorial Hall (Perry Hill, Worplesdon, England) is September 9 to September 11. 

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