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Charles Walter Simpson, R.B.A., R.I., R.O.I. (1885-1971)

Silver Wings

signed ‘Charles W. Simpson’ (lower left) and further signed and inscribed
‘No.2 Silver Wings/C.W. Simpson/ Little Gonwin/ Carbis Bay’ (on a label on the reverse)

oil on canvas
60 ¼x 45 ¼ in. (153 x 115.6 cm.)
frame 67 ¼ x 52 in. (170.8 x 132.1 cm.)



London, Royal Academy, 1916, no. 558.


It is not often one comes across a painting that is as audial as it is visual. As striking as the sunlight dancing off the sea and rocks, it is impossible not to hear the birds, a cacophony of soprano cries, accompanied by an orchestra of waves rolling ashore. A peripheral glance of this Royal Academy exhibition piece is all it takes to be transported back to the day Charles Simpson was painting, just over a century ago. One can feel through his canvas the sea air, bracing and life-affirming; the bright clarity of the Cornish light indicates that it is likely to be morning, with the dazzling sun, fresh to a new day, rising over the coast. Living by the sea, Silver Wings must have been a sight that the artist witnessed and contemplated on numerous occasions. A moment of striking natural intensity, the painting could be said to be an allegory of the four classical elements - water, air, fire and earth: the sea, birds, sun and rocks.

To capture the energy of such a moment, it is likely that Simpson stood with palette and brushes in hand, throwing food to draw in the birds, whilst recording the scene on canvas (1). His long, quick and energised brushstrokes effortlessly mix greens, yellows, pinks, blues, yellows, and a multitude of other colours, without losing the definition of each: it is nothing short of a masterclass in British Impressionism. The thick, undulating impasto, has a spontaneity and immediacy reminiscent of his friend, Sir Alfred Munnings, who is thought to have moved to Cornwall upon Simpson’s suggestion.

Simpson moved to Cornwall in 1905, and was to become part of an artistic community around the Lamorna Valley, which included Laura and Harold Knight, Sir Alfred Munnings, Florence Carter-Wood, and Lamorna Birch. In 1916 he moved with his wife, Ruth Alison (2), to St Ives: it was here, in the very same year, that Silver Wings was painted.

A member of the St Ives Society of Artists, Simpson studied under Lucy Kemp-Welch, Stanhope Forbes, and at the Académie Julian in Paris; he exhibited 48 times at the Royal Academy between 1907-1953. His work can be found in numerous museums and collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Royal Collection, The Russell Cotes Art Gallery, Royal Cornwall Museum, The Laing Art Gallery, and Penlee House Gallery & Museum, where an exhibition of his work was held in 2005.

(1) Considering the size of the present work, it is likely that Simpson used a smaller canvas, before working up the composition in his studio.

(2) When they met, Ruth was an artist training under Stanhope Forbes.

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