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1928 The Agony and Ecstasy of Charles Sims

Among the 1,536 works exhibited at the Summer Exhibition of 1928, there was really only one talking point: the six “Spiritual Ideas” by Charles Sims. Tragically, the artist had committed suicide just weeks before the Exhibition opened, having submitted the pictures by the required deadline and then taken his own life on 13 April 1928.

The paintings were among the most advanced, stylistically, that the Royal Academy had ever seen. The impact of the six pictures, all of uniform size and shown grouped in Gallery XI (the traditional gathering place for works of a more modern persuasion) must have been extraordinary. Five of the six show a small naked figure adrift in a sea of brilliant colour; the final canvas (“The rebel powers that thee array”) has an elderly man, arms outstretched in imitation of crucifixion, encircled with a cloud of smaller spirits.1 Through a maelstrom of cosmic energy appears a gigantic smiling face, or a pair of cradling hands, reaching out towards the embodied soul. Yet the titles make it plain that consolation is far away; if the universal force appears benign, this is only an illusion. The optimism of the first, “Behold I have graven thee on the palm of my Hand” (Fig. 1), is immediately countered by the second, “My pain beneath your sheltering Hand”. The anguish is at its most acute in the fourth, where the soul seeks to free itself from the embracing arms, described by the title as “. . . . . . . . man’s last pretence of consummation in indifference” (Fig. 2).

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Charles Sims had been appointed Keeper, or head of the Royal Academy Schools, in 1920. The position placed him at the very heart of the organisation, as the guardian of future generations of painters rigorously drilled in the traditional methods of drawing and composition. His skills as a figure draughtsman were second to none, yet his volatile and individualistic temperament had led to an uneasy passage of his own through the Schools; he became a major prizewinner before being expelled for a disagreement with the then Keeper, Luke Fildes.2 Sims’ early exhibits revealed a sympathy for the Continental symbolist movement, which he translated into an English idyll in a painting begun in 1913, where a classical figure is holding the rapt attention of a group of modern children. By the time Sims presented the work to the Academy as his Diploma picture in 1916, his eldest son had been killed in action. He renamed the work Clio and the Children. The muse’s scroll was now stained with blood.3

Sims then created a series of canvasses in homage to early Italian fresco, as a way of rediscovering the meaning of sacrifice in a specifically Christian context.4 The violent emotion of his final works, along with the visual language used to express it, was, however, quite new. To present-day audiences the nearest point of reference might appear to be Kandinsky, and one perceptive contemporary reviewer saw echoes of the Italian futurists who had shown in London before the First World War.5 For all of his working life, Sims had demonstrated a marked antipathy to “the modern”, which made his final artistic testament not only surprising, but also disturbing.

These paintings strike a deeper and a more intense note than anything else at the Academy—than is common at the Academy, indeed—and there is perhaps no better criticism of the Academy as an institution, of institutions generally, than that they are undoubtedly disturbing.6

There was a widespread assumption at the time that Sims was suffering from some sort of mental illness when he painted these pictures, which was only reinforced by the fact of his suicide. His depression was too much of a taboo to be mentioned openly, and was addressed only by Frank Rutter, critic of The Sunday Times, who broached it on sympathetic terms: “to suggest that there are traces of mania in these last and most beautiful works from his brush betrays a lamentable lack of understanding.”7

The imputation was not altogether unfamiliar, however, as a means of denigrating or dismissing the unconventional and challenging work of artists such as William Blake or Vincent van Gogh. Rutter knew that Sims had been taking medication for insomnia; an indication of a disturbed mental condition, perhaps, but not necessarily pathological.

Not mentioned were Sims’ recent misfortunes in his relations with the Academy, and especially its elderly President, Frank Dicksee. This series of disagreements led to Sims losing his job, his home and, very nearly, his reputation. As Keeper, Sims had been commissioned to produce a portrait of the king, George V, to add to the Academy’s complete series of British monarchs since its foundation. The portrait was exhibited in 1924, prior to Dicksee’s election, but when it became known that the king was unhappy with Sims’ florid—and seemingly frivolous—handling of the figure and the drapery, in 1925, the President requested it to be withdrawn and it was returned to the artist. Sims, despite agreeing not to exhibit the picture, showed it in New York for a few months, and returned there the following year for several weeks, painting portraits, in what may have appeared a tacit riposte to the Academy undermining his ability to attract his accustomed society clientele in Britain. When Sims’s prolonged absence from his duties in the Schools was challenged, he chose to resign. In order to avoid any further damaging publicity, the Academy reacquired the portrait. It was decided first to cut out and burn the head, and then, in April 1927, to consign the entire canvas to the boiler in the basement of Burlington House.8 Sims had by this time been given notice that he must vacate the Keeper’s House, the accommodation that was given him with the position. The Academy’s reaction was all the more futile when a smaller version of the painting had already entered the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Scotland.9

It may have been as a result of this sad and turbulent history of Sims’s frictions with the Academy—punctuating his entire career, only to culminate in months of barely suppressed antagonism—that he embarked on the series of paintings, which occupied the final year of his life. No criticism is directed at the Academy in any literal way, yet the personifications of abstract forces that Sims conjures up with such originality reveal the institution’s seemingly almighty power: power to ensure an artist’s future prosperity, and also the power to destroy it.

  1. The works were: “Behold I have graven thee on the palm of my Hand” (Fig. 1); “My pain beneath your sheltering Hand”; “The Rebel Powers that thee array”; “. . . . . . . . man’s last pretence / Of consummation in indifference” (Fig. 2); “I am the abyss and I am Light”; and “Here am I”. Unusually, all six were illustrated in colour in the popular press, “My pain beneath your sheltering Hand” and “Behold I have graven thee on the palm of my Hand” in The Illustrated London News, 12 May 1928, 846 and 847 and the others in the Sketch, 9 May 1928. “I am the abyss and I am Light” was purchased from the Exhibition devoted to the pictures and a large number of studies at Barbizon House in November 1928 and donated to the Tate Gallery; “Behold I have graven thee on the palm of my Hand” was purchased for the Cleveland Museum of Art from the international exhibition at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh in the same year, when its title was confused with “Behold I have graven thee on the palm of my Hand”. It was deaccessioned in 1965. Sims, Charles and W.M.M., “Lo, here am I”, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 16, no. 3 (March 1929): 47, 52–54.↩︎

  2. C. Sims and A. Sims, Picture Making, Technique and Inspiration (London: Seeley, Service & Co., 1934), 100.↩︎

  3. Richard Cork, A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War (London: Yale University Press, 1984), 128–129.↩︎

  4. The Seven Sacraments of Holy Church; Sims and Sims, Picture Making, Technique and Inspiration, 120–122.↩︎

  5. T.W. Earp, “The Academy”, New Statesman, 12 May 2017.↩︎

  6. “Royal Academy”, The Times, 5 May 1928.↩︎

  7. Frank Rutter, “The Academy”, The Sunday Times, 8 May 1928. A fuller quote reads:

    A man who has been suffering from continued insomnia may well not be responsible for his actions, but he is not necessarily insane. To suggest that there are traces of mania in these last and most beautiful works from his brush betrays a lamentable lack of understanding, and is an undeserved slight on the memory of a sweet and reasonable painter.


  8. The sequence of events is recorded in two versions of a handwritten memo written retrospectively by Walter Lamb, the Academy Secretary, where he puts the destruction down to “a private arrangement between his late Majesty & the President of the Royal Academy”. RAA Sec/10/79/2i and 2ii.↩︎

  9. The work was purchased in 1924 and unveiled at the gallery at the end of July. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, PG 974, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 70.8 cm. I am grateful to Kim Macpherson, Curatorial Administrator, for this information.↩︎

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