Born in Biddulph, Staffordshire, the son of a coal miner, Simcock was around twenty-three years old when, in 1952, he painted the self-portrait acquired by Ruth Borchard. His is the self-dramatising scowl of a proud, nervously defiant young man. The left side of his face and of his head of luxuriant, swept-back gold brown hair is partly shadowed – especially round the enlarged, red-rimmed left eye.
His shirt, whose every crease and ‘crevice’ is sharply hewn, also reflects the head’s balancing-out of darks and lights. Above and to the sides of his head radiates a swirling, van Goghian aura whose purples, yellows and whites reflect the painting’s perhaps deliberately sickly palette. Simcock suffered recurrent ill-health at this time.
At school, Simcock invariably came top in his art class. In 1947, called up for two years National Service, he was ‘wretchedly homesick’ at first, before settling down to harsh menial jobs. Most importantly, in the long evenings ‘I started painting – mostly copying and enlarging photographs from books.’
From 1949 until about 1955, he periodically attended Stoke-on-Trent School of Art. Encouraged to paint by a local artist and art critic, Reginald Haggar, his attempts to obtain a painting diploma there were apparently sabotaged by the college Head of Painting who disapproved that Simcock ‘spent rather more time sitting on the top of slag-heaps, drawing and painting’ than at lectures. It was Haggar’s support and that of an outstanding local visionary artist, Arthur Berry (1925-1994), that succoured Simcock, the aspiring painter.
In 1956, ‘I put six paintings in my van and set off alone for London. I went to the first gallery on my list, the Piccadilly Gallery.’ The result was instantaneously positive. Over the next twenty-three years, Simcock had a series of successful one-person exhibitions at the Piccadilly.
A key event was when he and his wife Beryl bought their house, West View, in Primitive Street in the village of Mow Cop – ‘a mountain of millstone grit 1,100 feet above sea level’ – straddling the Staffordshire-Cheshire border. His subject matter became the old, black stone cottages (‘like old bird-nests and as natural’), fallen stone walls (resembling, as he painted them, heaps of coal) and wintry trees in and around Mow Cop, and also the buildings (‘blacker, heavier and somewhat ominous’) on nearby Biddulph Moor. Starkly black-and-white at first sight, these bleak compositions are multi-layered to reveal hidden colours, a buried vibrancy, symbols from the artist’s extensive knowledge of literature, religion and art.