'Hast thou, spirit, Perform'd to point the tempest that I bade thee?' Prospero [to Ariel], The Tempest
Oil on plywood panel; frame bears plaque with title
21 x 32¼ inches
Born to poverty in Manchester, Sime spent five early years in the Yorkshire coal mines. A course at the Liverpool School of Art set him on track to become an illustrator of dark, atmospheric and fantastic subjects, for which he quickly won fame. He was also involved in theatrical production and set design, working with Lord Howard de Walden on the set of Maeterlinck’s symbolist fairy play The Blue Bird (1909–11). Malcolm Campbell was so entranced by Sime’s bewitching sets that he painted his car blue and christened her Bluebird. Sime’s inclination of mind to leave the world behind, like Mervyn Peake or Austin Osman Spare, was matched by his facility with pen and brush, and he became one of Britain’s most celebrated ‘Outsider’ artists, avant la lettre.
An extraordinary talk was given to the members of the Royal Society of British Artists, of which Sime was a member, in November 1904 by the Reverend J Page Hopps, under the auspices of the London Spiritualist Alliance (Hopps, it seems was a ‘fellow traveller’, who had reconciled his Unitarian faith with Spiritualism by arguing that the Bible was communicated by spirits). Sime was likely to have attended the talk, the subject of which was Shakespeare and The Tempest: Hopps’s message is obscure, but it seems that, like Prospero, Man is seeking his place between an Inward and Outward world, and it would appear that in this painting Sime attempted to visualise that idea, showing us the boundary between the two, in the most incredible tumult. The rocks seem to be animated, as in Norse legend. It is painted in the translucent oily glazes typical of him at this time, about 1904. The following year, Sime’s patron Lord Dunsany published his first book, The Gods of Pega-na, illustrated by Sime. The book is fantastical, ‘inventing an entire cosmogony’, a world of mad gods creating and destroying at whim. It was the beginning of a productive relationship between author and illustrator.
After the First World War Sime became obsessed with the visions of St John in the Book of Revelation, painting his own visions of the Apocalypse. The novelist and connoisseur Desmond Coke visited Sime at his house at Worplesdon, Surrey, and wrote in his Confessions of an Incurable Collector that ‘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.’