Art on Primitive Street
Primitive Street is the mantelpiece of Mow Cop. On the top shelf of a great fireplace of a Potteries village which is embossed on a hill 1,000 feet high. There are fields, red houses, pit heaps and trees, one of them just an arthritic stump. In the view that Jack Simcock, philosopher-painter, sees from his house in Primitive Street.
He is unlikely ever to paint the fields: when he paints the houses they will probably appear black, scarcely lighter in tone than the pit heaps: and he will never paint the stumpy tree when the sun is on it. There is no sunshine in any of his pictures; no leaves on his trees: he paints only between late September and March.
Simcock, at 31, has been painting for five years, averaging about fifty pictures a year and selling most of them. He has had nine exhibitions to himself, four of them in London and one in Los Angeles, and now has one opening in New York and another in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Yet he says: “I can’t talk about myself as a professional. When people talk about painters I don’t identify myself with the group they are talking about. Painting is a way of life for me: a philosophy.”
He has never used any subject outside the Potteries, and mostly he paints from subjects found within a mile of his home: terraced –row landscapes, for example in blacks and greys, sometimes under a blotched white sky and with a face or a full figure as a merged foreground. The landscapes are actual and are sketched beforehand: the faces and figures are imaginary “worked into the picture because at a certain stage they seem psychologically right: as much a part of the landscape as a house or a telegraph pole.”
He is the only son of a miner, born into a village of terraced brick houses: dark little homes with lace curtains. He was brought up by “tired people in a tired, tasteless world of work and worry,” and he hated it from an early age. “I wanted to go away to London or abroad, anywhere, just to get away.” But now he lives in his tall grey house with his wife and two children, two miles from where he was born, and says that he never wants to leave.
He thinks on paper, writing “art notes,” and “philosophic notes” with a vague (and unrealised) view to publication, but much more for his own clarification. The language is in glaring contrast to the dramatic and uncluttered nature of his painting. In an article (published in “Art News and Review”) explaining how he began painting, he wrote that “an overwhelming awareness of the disturbing reality of my environment and a growing sympathy and involvement with it” developed in him “a compulsion to absorb it into a form which I could more readily perceive.”
So he paints only what he knows and understands. “I could never paint the sea.” But he does not regard himself as a regional artist. He is not painting Mow Cop, although his neighbours will tell you he is, because they recognise his scenes. His paintings, to quote again from his “Art News and Review” article, “express my concept of all visible matter.”
He says he makes no attempt to communicate to other people in his work. “I ask my own questions in my painting and answer them. If the solution is right to me that is all that matters. If other people like my work and buy it, I am pleased, because I want a comfortable house furnished the way I want it: but the reason why people buy my work is not important to me.”
He spent four years at a local school of art, but in the last two years he ignored most of the classes and sat on pit heaps painting by himself. He failed in three attempts to get an art teacher’s diploma, but found a school where he still teaches three days a week.
He says that he has never been conscious of adopting a style. “I’ve never found the technicalities of painting difficult or very interesting.” He paints quickly, using a knife, and seldom takes as long as eight hours to complete a work. Yet one gallery where he has exhibited praises particularly his “beautiful technique” while regretting that with his unchanging blacks and greys he has “found himself a formula which is a bit of a straightjacket.”
Simcock would reply to this that he does not understand what is meant by “his formula,” and that the criticism “has no significance” for him. He paints what is significant: and grey stones are and roses and sunlit red bricks are not.