Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Neglected genius: the art of Sidney Sime

That’s where Virgil Finlay got his trademark starry effect. You can just see it, can’t you, as the illustration for a Grey Mouser tale in Unknown? Except that this fellow is not the Mouser but Thangobrind the Jeweller, alarmed by an ominous cough when Fritz Leiber Jr was still in his playpen.

After a lecture at Cornell in which Lord Dunsany had mentioned his longtime collaborator, the artist Sidney Sime, somebody said what a perfect name Sime was for him. “I don’t know,” said Dunsany; “I think Rhibelungzanedroom would suit him better.”

Which bothers me, because firstly I want some of what Dunsany used to smoke - but also because I would really like to know how Sime’s name was pronounced. Some books say “seem”, and the Cornellian’s comment would appear to bear that out. And yet I have spoken to friends of the Sime family in Worplesdon, who assure me that it rhymes with “lime”. So there’s a bit of a mystery, eh?

Eating strawberries in Dunsany’s garden at Dunstall Priory, Sime remarked, “Last year I think summer was on a Wednesday.” Later he went for a walk through Shoreham and an old lady asked him the time. “Later than it has ever been, madam,” he replied.

From Gallipoli, depressed by the high rate of casualties among his men, Dunsany sent a letter to Sime, the seal engraved as usual with a little human figure. Sime wrote back: “The god on your seal received due salutations from me. I can guess from the sinister gleam of satisfaction in his eye that he has just created a world a little bit worse than this one.”

Wells and Lady Gregory and A.E. Russell - that was the company Sime kept. (He did not much get on with Wells.) Lady Dunsany liked him very much, noting in a letter that, “He started life as a miner, but the only trace left is in his features, which are rough looking. His head is magnificent, his manners perfect, his conversation that of a scholar and a philosopher, his interest and knowledge vast and varied.”

Oh yes, Sime was ten years a miner before he took to drawing. As he was born in Manchester, he might very well have been down the same pit as my great-uncles. And then he fetched up in Worplesdon, just a short walk across the heath from where I grew up. And in the meantime he honed his craft at the Liverpool School of Art, which I believe is where Leo’s dad studied. It’s a small world on this, the mundane side of Sime’s canvas.

It’s hard to look at Sime’s pictures without getting pulled into an entire universe. He might show only a little house in the woods, but your imagination travels on beyond the woods and finds a castle, teeming with courtiers in outlandish robes, all bearing a succession of silver platters down to their imprisoned king in the dungeons. Or a herald on the battlements sending a dove aloft, carrying in its beak a secret message which will be passed from bird to bird and never again come down to earth where it might be read. Oh, the hours of fancy you get from one Sime image!

Dunsany must have thought so too; he would often weave an entire story around one of Sime’s pictures. If you are ever in Worplesdon, make your way to the cricket pavilion and see if you can find somebody to unlock the Sime Museum, which is a room on the upper floor. The village owns his works now – once the toast of the Café Royal crowd, now curling in dusty sunbeams. The old lady who kindly showed me round said, “We had some American gentlemen who wanted to turn Mr Sime’s drawings into a calendar, but we thought it would be a bother.”

Sime died very nearly that magic seventy years ago. The door to public domain opens. Will fame again be there to greet him?


  1. Absolutely beautiful and weird work Dave. Many thanks and I've got to admit (sotto voce) that Sidney Sime is new to me.

    Like a weird concoction of John Bauer, Harry Clark and Gustave Dore.

    Really lovely work - many thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Peter - I'm delighted to have found an artist you didn't know about. I didn't think that was possible :)

    Martin and I were reminded of Sime's work when we went around The Age of Enchantment exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery a couple of years ago. He produced some very strange fantasy pictures, almost all in black and white, alongside the cartoons and caricatures that made him famous in the 1910s and 1920s. I'll run some more if I can get them scanned without damaging the book too much.