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Artist in Focus VII - Charles Sims

Charles Sims was born in Islington, where his father owned a factory, but grew up in Margate where the family moved soon after his birth. Throughout his life he was lame from a serious injury to his leg which he received in infancy. After various attempts to train him for a career in business he was allowed to attend art schools in London and Paris, and later the Royal Academy Schools - from which he was expelled on the pretext of a trivial misdemeanour (in reality, probably for his cheerful non-conformity). His reputation as a painter was established with his first one-man show at the Leicester Galleries in 1906. He became best known for lyrical open-air scenes, full of light and exuberance, which he painted during an idyllic period of his life with his wife and young children in Sussex. He was constantly experimenting, and revived, or reinvented, the technique of painting with tempera in order to preserve the brilliance of the colours.

The idyll ended with the outbreak of war. His eldest son was killed, and the family moved to London. In 1917 he completed a series of paintings, The Seven Sacraments of Holy Church, in a deliberately archaic style quite unlike his usual work. In 1918 he was sent to France as an official artist, and this experience, together with the move from the country, seems to mark the beginning of a change in his personality. He became gradually more reserved and aloof, and at the end of his life he appeared to one friend as ‘a very lonely and pathetic figure’. He was Keeper of the Academy Schools from 1920 to 1926, and earned much of his living by portrait painting during this period. In the last two years of his life he worked on a series which he called ‘Spirituals’ or ‘Spiritual Ideas’. (Though spiritualists claimed these works as representations of the ‘spirit world’ itself, Sims was adamant that this was not his intention.) As with The Seven Sacraments, these were quite unlike his previous work in style. For the first time he used abstract form and colour, the background of all the pictures suggesting a torn curtain through which some mystical experience is glimpsed. The figures also lean towards abstraction, and the paint is thin and flat. Six of these paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1928, but shortly before this Sims had killed himself, tortured by insomnia and dreading the approach of old age.

During this last period he had been undergoing treatment by a ‘nerve specialist’, and after his suicide it was rumoured that he had been insane. Attempts were even made to keep his work out of the Academy exhibition. The painting Aspiration, which was part of the original Guttmann-Maclay Collection (the others having been added more recently), is presumed to have been acquired because of the belief that Sims was suffering from serious mental disorder. At present we do not know much about his actual state of mind, but there seems little doubt that his painting was profoundly affected, both in style and content, by the mental turmoil which he was experiencing. There is no doubt at all that the most powerful and original paintings of his whole career are to be found among these final works.