Sidney Herbert Sime was born in Manchester in 1865 (a date confirmed by researches during 2014; some sources have previously quoted 1867). He was the second of six children of Scottish parents.
As soon as he was old enough he went to work in the Yorkshire pits where conditions were very bleak and he spent about five years pushing ‘scoops’ filled with coal along rails through tunnels about 28 inches high. The miners had their own folklore and ‘familiars’: goblins, Coblynau, Cutty Soams, Dunters and Knockers, who were bringers of, or defenders against, ever present dangers. Here Sime used to scratch drawings of imps and devils on the walls and snatch a few spare moments for little sketches when possible. Other jobs included working for a linen-draper, a baker and a shoe-maker. Later, Sime took up sign-writing, at which he became successfully self-employed, and eventually joined the Liverpool School of Art, which was part of a national network of art schools stretching out from South Kensington, London.
By his early twenties, Sime had managed to educate himself and gained several prizes and medals from the Liverpool School of Art. In 1889 his first picture, a portrait of Henry Peet Esq, was exhibited in the Walker Art Gallery Autumn Exhibition, the northern equivalent of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
His studies completed, Sime decided that the best way for a young artist to start earning a profitable living was by illustrating for magazines and books. He contributed to many magazines including the Illustrated London News, Pall Mall Magazine, Graphic, Tatler, Strand, Pick-Me-Up and The Idler, which was edited by Jerome K. Jerome. Here in 1897, Sime’s bizarre drawings ‘From an Ultimate Dim Thule’ began to appear and in the same year (1897/8) he became editor of Eureka magazine. In 1899 he purchased and edited The Idler magazine for a short time. There are several copies in the Sime Gallery.
The media that Sime used for his drawings included wash, charcoal, and lamp black with Chinese white or grey body-colour for highlights, working with brushes, pens, knives and sponges.
The year 1899 was the high point of his career, with some of his greatest achievements in the magazine world. Macfall wrote of him: “There is behind all Sime’s work an extraordinary sense of one who has felt the immensity of life – it requires no great prophet to foretell that Sime will be one of our greatest black and white artists …”
Meanwhile, in 1898, Sime had married Mary Susan Pickett, a miniaturist painter, and inherited money and property from his deceased solicitor uncle. He and his wife settled in a comfortable residence in Aberfoyle in the district of Stirling, on the edge of the Trossachs and it was from here that Sime painted numerous Scottish landscape scenes, many of which may be viewed at the Sime Gallery.
Sime had also acquired a studio in King’s Road Chelsea and, while enjoying the congenial stimulus of friends in London, he decided in 1904 to sell his Scottish home and buy Crown Cottage, an old coaching inn at Worplesdon, a location more accessible to London and next to the home of his friend Duncan Tovey. Sime filled his shelves with many books of Poe, Heine, De Quincey and Meredith, reading about eight to ten books a week, often well into the night. The walls were covered with his own unframed paintings. An old converted stable became a studio for himself and his wife, containing prints of artists whom Sime admired – Goya, Piranesi, Hayden and his friend Augustus John, and ebony-framed prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Dressed in the same old blue suit, he became a regular visitor to the local inn, now demolished. He sat in the same place, opposite a large mirror, sketching caricatures of local working men and tradesmen, while drinking whiskey, sometimes holding jovial political conversations, but often sitting quietly until closing time. Many of these caricatures are on view in the Sime Gallery and are enjoyed by descendants of those Worplesdon gentlemen. Sime’s other interests included the use of a telescope for gazing at the stars, a microscope trained on various forms of insect life and a chemistry set with which he almost blew the roof off his studio.
Membership of London’s Langham Sketching Club and the Yorick Club provided Sime with congenial artistic companionship: Dudley Hardy, Walter Bayes and W. G. Johnson. Here for the first time Sime met two of his greatest admirers, Arthur Lawrence and James Thorpe. There were opportunities for drawing caricatures of fellow members, including Max Beerbohm, and for interacting with musical friends Duncan Tovey and Joseph Holbrooke. This provided stimulus for the later publication of Bogey Beasts, a book of pictures and verses by Sime with music by Holbrooke.
Lord Dunsany, of Norman descent and Irish title, whose family had inhabited Dunsany Castle for over 700 years, was a central figure in Sime’s life. Through his mother, Dunsany was related to Sir Richard Burton, the explorer. He delighted in reading Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales and the Authorised Version of the Bible and was inspired to write books with fascinating tales ‘far beyond the boundaries of our world’. Sime consented to illustrate for him and Dunsany remarked “I have never seen a black and white artist with a more stupendous imagination”. Sime had the good fortune to find his most enthusiastic admirers among the wealthy and at least equally eccentric peerage. For Lady Howard de Walden his appearance most closely resembled that of a “Chinese Idol”, while Max Beerbohm described Sime as looking “like nothing else on earth”. Together with work for Lord Dunsany and Howard de Walden, Sime produced some of his finest pieces. Although earning his living as an illustrator, he still cherished the ambition of becoming a ‘painter’, so towards this end he gained membership of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1896.
Love of the theatre drew Sime, often in the company of Arnold Galsworthy, to take seats for performances from where he could study the faces and peculiarities of gesture of the artists, having a particular affection for Dan Leno and Sarah Bernhardt. Never without his sketchbooks, Sime caricatured all the great names of the music hall and theatre. In the gallery at Worplesdon there are numerous finished drawings and the aforementioned sketchbooks.
In 1909 Sidney Sime and Caley Robinson were responsible for the sets of Maeterlinck’s ‘Bluebird’ , in partnership with Patron Lord Howard de Walden under the direction of Herbert Trench at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Many famous names attended the opening night in London in 1910, including Max Beerbohm, Bernard Shaw, Alfred Suto, Hugh Walpole, Henry James, Lord Dunsany and Malcolm Campbell. The latter went straight home after the performance to his neighbour’s car body workshop, had his newly bought cup-winning car painted blue and went on to Brooklands to win two races. Hence the car named ‘Bluebird’ brought him good luck and happiness. His son Donald Campbell also took the same name for his succession of speed boats.
Sime took a six-month visit to the States in 1905 on the invitation of William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper magnate, having already done some illustrations for him. However the connection was short-lived and Sime returned to England to work on his ten illustrations for a Dunsany book Time and the Gods.
In 1918 Sime was called up and spent time with the Army Service Corps on the east coast of Britain. “He went off to war not in shining armour and with glittering sword, but with a slop pail and a tin of polishing paste.” He developed a duodenal ulcer and was invalided out on Armistice Day.
It was at this time that Sime’s passion for painting in oils was most prolific. He became obsessed with the visions of St John in the Book of Revelation and painted his own visions of the Apocalypse. Working in oils and water colour became very important to him, in fact more so than the reputation he gained as an illustrator; yet it was difficult to form an opinion of its merit. However, the original version of ‘Wild Beast Wood’, sold by Sime to Desmond Coke, was rightly called his ‘masterpiece’. On visiting Sime at Worplesdon, Coke writes in his Confessions of an Incurable Collector: “Sime, 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.”
In 1924 Sime staged a well-received exhibition at St George’s Gallery, London, followed by another in 1927, albeit with less acclaim. It was hard necessity that prompted the exhibitions. In fact Lord Dunsany wrote to Sir Kenneth Clarke enquiring if it would be possible to get some sort of pension for Sime as he was nearing sixty and without regular income.
For the latter part of his life, Sime became something of a recluse, leaving the socially conscious artists with ‘significant form’ and relishing mysteriousness and obscurity, not wanting his art to be explicable. Why did Sime become neglected? Natural arrogance, self-doubt, the fear that his pictures were not wanted? Partly, it was self-inflicted and moreover he became lazy. After 1922 he painted when it pleased him and he painted for himself. In the 1890s, artists were individuals but, as the twentieth century progressed, they tended to combine, join movements, become serious and socially conscious. It did not please Sime: unlike Arthur Rackham, who charmed the eye, Sime’s ability was to slide into the subconscious.
Sidney Herbert Sime died on 22nd May 1941 and his grave in St Mary’s Churchyard, Worplesdon, is marked by a rough block of granite. Dunsany wrote to his widow ”I feel now that the world has lost a unique character, a loss that is quite irreplaceable”. Lord Howard de Walden wrote ”I don’t like the idea of his being forgotten only to be rediscovered a hundred years hence”.
Mary Sime’s Will in 1949 bequeathed all Sidney’s pictures in her possession to the Trustees of Worplesdon Memorial Hall for the creation of a gallery solely for the display of her husband’s work, which she endowed with the proceeds of the sale of Crown Cottage.
Simon Heneage and Henry Ford
Thames and Hudson, 1980 (on which the above notes are based, with grateful acknowledgement).
A 50-page illustrated booklet published in 2017 in connection with the Sime exhibition at The Lightbox, Woking. Available from the Sidney Sime Gallery for £5 plus P&P.
Ferret Fantasy, 1975.
Paul W. Skeeters
Ward Ritchie Press, 1978