For those unfamiliar with Mow Cop, it is an isolated, elevated village that sits on the border between Staffordshire and Cheshire and was the home of artist Jack Simcock from 1958 until his death in 2012, aged 83. It is a harsh environment that for millennia was known for its coal mining and quarrying. Even on the most benign of days, it can produce its own microclimate of fog and damp.
It is these properties that are instinctively linked to Simcock and the paintings he produced of the area for more than 20 years. Indeed, in his 1975 autobiography, Simcock, Mow Cop he writes of the ‘profound effect’ that his immediate surroundings have upon him and how the place is, in a sense, a part of him. This brief essay will focus on perhaps the most obvious part of this environment, the weather, and how it and the seasons shaped his work.
adept at perfectly capturing and interpreting the amplified, brutal beauty that a location such as Mow Cop offers, be that a rotting wooden fence post or a black stone wall
A conversation with his son, Tony, in 2017 brought into sharp focus Simcock’s acute attention to detail and sensitivities to the elements, and how he went about capturing and incorporating them into his paintings. Tony spoke of the hours he spent with his father driving the lanes of Mow Cop and neighbouring Biddulph Moor in their car to find locations to create preliminary sketches, and how such trips could only be undertaken when the weather and light was just right, usually after rain, so the stone houses, slate roofs, glasshouses and outbuildings shone with wet reflections. These, on the face of it, drab scenes would be sketched and perhaps photographed before returning to the studio to work on what is known as a Simcock ‘traditional’ landscape.
Greenhouse and Sheds, Mow Cop, Staffordshire in the collection of Dudley Museums Service is a good example of such a traditional. This painting from 1960 is a classic Simcock. It captures perfectly a time and place and incorporates all the elements so important to him – a greenhouse that has seen better days with its sagging roof line, a pigeon coop that would have been a source of pleasure for the working folk of the area, weather-beaten outbuildings that would have been patched up over the years, and overgrown seeded grass and weeds. Also, that sky, slate grey perfectly capturing the coldness of the day. On first glance, the untrained eye might see a dreary picture, but look closer and this painting, like so many Simcock’s, is a glistening gem of detail and colour, with greens and golds completing the reflections of the glass. This is clearly a painting by an artist completely wedded to and connected to his immediate environment. They are one and the same.
The Haystack, in the County Hall, Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection further emphasises this, with Simcock seeking out and finding a golden haystack to juxtapose against a
Interestingly, for someone so influenced and connected to the weather (Simcock only painted for six months of year, during autumn and winter) he produced relatively few snow scenes. This is unlikely to be for the lack of snow in his immediate area (again he only painted and took inspiration from his birthplace of Biddulph Moor and the surrounding area of his Mow Cop home).
Therefore, Snowscape with Cows and Figures, from the collection of Wolverhampton Art Gallery presents us with a rare treat.
Furthermore, it introduces us to another important element of about 50 per cent of Simcock’s traditional landscape paintings, a figure or head. In this example the figure could easily pass as the farmer tending to his cattle, however, he added these spontaneously into his paintings and they represent symbols of humanity rather than any particular person.
The inclusion of heads and figures in his traditional landscapes received a mixed response from critics and buyers, with many finding their often ghostly appearance disturbing. A 1958 review from the Arts Review perhaps better reflected how these figures were one of the elements that define both Simcock and Mow Cop: ‘His people are difficult and dour, but he understands them and expresses the latent something that lies behind their disagreeable facial contours’.
So, in Simcock, we have an artist who is not only completely interwoven with his environment, but adept at perfectly capturing and interpreting the amplified, brutal beauty that a location such as Mow Cop offers, be that a rotting wooden fence post or a black stone wall. Fortunately for us, Simcock saw splendour in such things and transferred it for posterity into a body of wonderful, important paintings.
Henry Birks, joint owner and director at Trent Art