My blog today is quite different to most of my others for two reasons. My love of art is quite traditional, some would say boringly middle-ground. If you imagine visual art as a spectrum, at one end of which we have Abstract Expressionism and at the other end there is Hyperrealism, then my predilection would be much closer to the hyperrealism end of the spectrum. I like to look at the beauty of a painting. I like to be amazed by the skill of the artist and marvel at the time they must have spent in completing a work. Mere splashes of colour do not impress me, whether it be stripes or dots. However, as I have said before I was told that to appreciate visual art one needs to embrace all types ! So, the first reason for this blog being different is that it focuses on the art genre of Surrealism and the works of a Surrealist painter.
Surrealism is a 20th-century form of art in which an artist brings together unrelated images or events in a very strange and often dreamlike way. It stresses the subconscious significance of imagery. Through their works of art, the Surrealist artists wanted to revolutionise our experience. They want us to cast-off our coherent and balanced visualisation of life and, in its place, value the power of the unconscious and dreams. The artists want us to look at their works and share their feeling of mysterious enchantment and discover the perplexing beauty in the bewildering depictions which totally disregarded convention.
The second difference with my blog today, and this is more of a concern to me, is that my subject today is a living artist ! Why should that matter? I suppose the answer is that I am delving into the life of somebody who has not given me permission to do so and secondly when one looks back and writes about somebody it is extremely important to have the correct facts. You would be surprised at the number of times when I am researching a painter that I am finding differing facts, differing dates, differing names of family members and I never want to just guess at the correct information and so these inaccuracies drive me mad !!! However, the deceased painter cannot complain at a mistaken fact quoted about them (albeit on some occasions I do get quizzed/censured regarding the authenticity/accuracy of what I have written by knowledgeable relatives or art historians). With a living artist, they may take umbrage with my factual accuracy.
Having said all that let me introduce you to the English Surrealist painter Neil Simone. The reason for this entry was that last week I was in the picturesque Yorkshire town of Harrogate and I visited Suttcliffes Contemporary Gallery, in the Montpellier Quarter of Harrogate and came across his works and actually bought one of his prints, The Retreat, as I was so fascinated by it. The one thing I like about some works of Surrealism, and I am a great fan of René Magritte, is that they are thought-provoking and quirky and I wonder how the artist ever came up with the ideas they put on canvas.
Neil Simone was born in London in 1947. His parents rented rooms in a property in Burrows Road close to Kensall Green Underground station. He was an only child and lived here for the first eleven years of his life. In 1958, his parents bought their first property in Harrow, Middlesex. This move to their own house finally gave their son his own room which as a teenager, was a godsend.
His progress in school was limited to success in graphic art and design in which he gained his “A” level and buoyed by that success he applied to enrol at the Harrow School of Art but was turned down due to not having achieved any academic qualifications in other subjects, in particular, the lack of “O” level English. Like many setbacks in life one often find they were for the best and Neil Simone considered it was a narrow escape for him not to have gained admission to the art school as he believed that his erstwhile colleagues and friends who did attend the school were stymied as far as to their choice of a future artistic road map as their artistic path was dictated to them by the tutors, whereas Neil made all his own artistic life choices.
With no art college to attend, Simone had to both occupy his time, as well as finding a way of earning money. Over the next few years he became a trainee lady’s hairdresser, helped a van driver deliver laundry, a petrol pump attendant and the nearest he got to the art world was a short spell as a layout artist for Moss Enterprises and a messenger for a commercial art studio, during which time he was attacked and robbed whilst carrying staff wages. However the job which was to change his life the most was as a display artist at Sopers department store in Harrow for his immediate boss and team leader was Linda who would in April 1968, become his wife. The couple moved into a flat into a house owned by Peter Hale, the head of department at the Road Transport industry Training Board which made training films and artwork for use in lectures and promotions. Peter had seen some of Simone’s work and offered him a job as creator of an exhibition to commemorate the opening of M.O.T.E.C. (multi-occupational training centre) which was held in Shrewsbury. M.O.T.E.C. was the training centre for apprentices in the Road Transport Industry. The training unit was designed to provide realistic working conditions in which apprentices could have experience of all aspects of the trade. The commission Peter gave Simone was so big that he needed help and so he took on his wife on a freelance basis to help him with the task.
The August Bank Holiday of 1969 proved a turning point in Neil and Linda Simone’s lives. Their landlord and Neil’s employer invited the couple to visit his other home, The Priory, in the picturesque town of Harrogate in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside. For Neil this was the first time out of London but he was immediately taken by the beauty of the area. Peter and his wife Elizabeth persuaded Neil that Harrogate and the surrounding countryside would be a perfect base for him to carry on with his painting and they offered to rent Neil and Linda the basement of their house. It must have been a big decision for Neil and Linda to have to make, whether they should give up their jobs and move two hundred miles away from their home and families in London and for Neil to take up painting professionally. It was probably Linda’s belief in her husband that he could succeed and the fact that it was just the two of them that Neil decided to take the plunge and start a new life in Yorkshire with his wife.
Once the decision was made and the couple had moved to Harrogate Neil reckoned that to survive financially he needed to sell a minimum of two paintings per week. He started to build up a collection of his work so that he could show his work at the 1970 Valley Gardens exhibition in Harrogate. The exhibition went well and he sold twenty of his paintings. However with every success comes failure and after the exhibition the sale of his paintings dried up and during the winter months of 1970 he was forced to go door to door with them to try to get a sale.
In the Spring of 1971 he exhibited at the Lounge Hall, Royal Baths, Harrogate and it was during this show that he met a fellow artist Judy Pyrah. The two of them talked about the dream she had of opening her own gallery and suggested a joint venture when they had sufficient money. Neil’s financial situation was improved by another person, Mr Rivlin, whom he also met at the exhibition. Mr Rivlin liked Simone’s artwork and offered him employment at his company as the resident artist in charge of packaging designs and corporate identity material for his company, Endura Lamps of Horsforth. In October 1971 Neil Simone started working for Mr Rivlin and in November Neil and Judy Pyrah opened their gallery, the Eye-Glass Gallery, in John Street, Harrogate. The gallery remained open for just twelve months and this coincided with his work for Mr Rivlin being terminating in January 1973.
Neil and Linda’s stay in the basement of The Priory came to a sudden end in the autumn of 1974 when Harrogate was subjected to a series of storms and their basement flat was flooded and so the couple moved to another flat in Harrogate which also had room for a studio and a workshop for framing and was both light and airy. During the next two years the sale of Simone’s paintings did well and he exhibited at galleries as far north as Edinburgh. When Neil and Linda had taken the decision to permanently leave London and take a chance with life in Harrogate there was just the two of them and so if the venture failed then it would just hurt them as they had no children to support. However seven years on, with their finances at a reasonable position, they believed they should start a family and in July 1976 their son, Lee, was born.
Within six months things turned for the worse for the family with galleries not wanting his paintings and with sales tumbling, they were in trouble. For Neil, it was a time of introspection, a time to figure out why things had gone wrong and more importantly work out what people wanted from art. He needed time to reassess his art and, to give himself a chance to do this, Linda took their son and went back to live with her mother. He realised the most important question he had to answer was what did he want from his art for he realised his mistake of suffocating his own imagination which once set ablaze his passion for art. Neil thought long and hard and eventually hit on the idea that people may like to view works which would transport them into an alternative vision of reality. He wanted observers of his work to question what were they actually looking at. This was of course a form of surrealism, which he had dabbled with eight years earlier but had abandoned believing that he must paint what the public wanted and not what he wanted.
His new style of artwork soon became an art with a sense of humour, as Neil put it “they would be paintings with an element of realism that invite conjecture” It was quirky but would it sell? He decided that he had nothing to lose and so in 1977, Neil Simone’s art became different. It was a new direction. In August 1979, the Harrogate Advertiser described it as
“…a fusion of fact and fantasy…”
It was the start of an exciting journey. With the mental turmoil dissipated on having finally decided on the future of his art, he asked Linda to return to Harrogate.
The public and art critics both liked and were excited by this new style and his works of art were in great demand at exhibitions and sales rocketed. His gamble on changing his artistic style had paid off and his paintings were in great demand. Neil struggled to keep up a collection of his work due to all the sales. His brain was awash with new ideas and his artwork was in great demand. With all this came a healthy bank balance and in July 1978 Neil bought and moved into a house with Linda and two-year-old Lee in Grasmere Crescent, Harrogate. This was the first home they had purchased and was an ideal place for an artist with a bright studio in the loft conversion.
Neil decided to launch his first set of limited editions prints but to do this he needed some financial backing which he got from family and friends and this proved a financial success and soon he could pay back his friends and from then on, he was able to fund any subsequent print editions, the second of which was launched in February 1980. With all these print runs space at home became critical and it was soon obvious to Neil that the family needed a larger house. In June 1980, they moved into a large house on Harlow Hill, one of the highest points around Harrogate, which he had bought when it was only partially constructed which allowed him to agree to some design alterations with the builder.
Another break came in March 1981 when a Dutch art dealer called at Simone’s studio. The dealer, Kees De Jong, had been told about the success Simone was having with his new style work and came to offer him a chance to exhibit some of it at the prestigious London Department store, Harrods. Simone accepted the invite and in May his works were being showed in the windows of the prestigious department store. More invites rolled in for Simone to exhibit works at various exhibitions and he now had to continually produce works. Although this was time consuming and tiring Simone was very aware that the popularity of one’s artwork is ephemeral and that he had to make the most of his popularity. The downside to this success was Neil had less time to spend with his wife and son.
In 1983 Neil Simone met Barbara Dutton who had come to look at his paintings. She was just about to open her own gallery at Pately Bridge, a village some four miles from Harrogate, and wanted some of Neil’s prints and originals but had a limited budget. Neil and Barbara came to an agreement that she could take all his works on a sale or return basis. The gallery opened in May and later that year there was an exhibition of Neil’s latest works.
In June 1984, Neil and Linda had an addition to the family with the birth of a daughter, Gemma. Over the next ten years Neil was inundated with work to satisfy exhibitions he had committed to. Life was hectic but profitable. He had taken his son to Paris for his eighteenth birthday in 1994 and in 1996 his son had gone to university and his daughter was about to start secondary school. Everything was going so well and yet around this time, Neil sensed all was not well. He had a foreboding that things were going to change. This sense he had of imminent change in his life was converted into two paintings he completed entitled The Ephemeral Nature of Beauty and the Persistence of Art and Our Thoughts Stray Constantly Without Boundary, both hinted at Neil’s concern that things in his life and marriage were about to change and not necessarily for the better.
In 1997 Neil struggled with the effort to have to paint more pictures and became physically and mentally run down. He had to continually paint to satisfy clients and fulfil exhibition commitments but found it difficult to achieve sufficient work during a day at the studio so would leave home in the evening, returning to the studio to continue working through part of the night. He began to worry about all the pressure to keep people happy but would not talk about it to his wife. He admitted that he became morose and withdrawn but he just hoped the problem would be short term. The strain on his marriage got so bad that in January 1998, in a hope that things may improve, he and Linda decided to separate and he left the family home and went to live in his rented studio.
Some years earlier, Neil became very friendly with a lady called Heather who worked at an art materials shop where he bought most of his supplies. Although she worked in Centagraph, an art supply shop, she had never painted and she was pleased to accept Neil’s offer of artistic tuition. They became great friends and Heather proved to be the support Neil Simone needed to get him through life. Living in his studio where he stored his artwork was proving to be untenable and so he decided he needed to buy somewhere larger. The time also coincided with Heather and her young son Ben wanting to move out of rented premises and contemplate owning somewhere and so Neil and Heather, for financial reasons, decided to jointly buy somewhere and to fund his part of the purchase, Neil reluctantly sold some of his original paintings he had been keeping for himself. In May 1999, the couple moved into a first-floor apartment in Langcliffe Avenue, Harrogate. It was ideal for these two artists as it had a hexagonal sun room and a private roof terrace.
In late 2000, fifty-three-year-old, Neil Simone suffered a heart attack and was forced to rest and in January 2001 he underwent a triple bypass operation. After a long period of rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Heather, Neil resumed painting. Although they loved their apartment there was just not enough wall space to hang their work and so decided to search the property market for something larger and room for a gallery and workshop. Their search proved fruitful in September 2003 when they found the ideal home in the village of Whixley. A month later Neil and Heather moved in to their new home and were able to hold exhibitions in their own gallery. Heather and Neil are now married and still live in their Whixley home.
Of his painting style which he termed visual surrealism, Neil wrote:
“…I paint the way that I do because I see the world as a dimension of shadows, shapes, contradictions and ever changing fragile boundaries…”
The majority of the information for this blog came from Neil’s own autobiography, Neil Simone. The Memoirs of an Artist. How long does it take? which is an excellent book with many reproductions of his work.
Neal and Heather’s gallery is at 2a High Street Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire which I look forward to visiting in the summer. The website is http://www.simonegalleries.com/.