Formidable proprietor of the Greyfriars Art Shop
Friday 18 November 2005
Mildred Renée Evelyn Simm, art-shop proprietor: born Neuilly-sur-Seine, France 5 February 1901; (one daughter); died Perth 11 November 2005.
The First World War changed everything for Renée Simm. Uprooted from her native France to the Edinburgh of Miss Jean Brodie, where most of the males of her generation had been killed, she longed to go to art school, but had instead to work for a living - 40 years of shopkeeping, which she frankly found dull. She became fiercely independent, and formed friendships with a series of remarkable men who became her heroes: the painter and sculptor William Lamb in her youth; the potter Bernard Leach in her art-shop days; and, in the long evening of her retirement, the poet and writer George Mackay Brown.
She was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, on the western outskirts of Paris, in February 1901, a fortnight after the death of Queen Victoria. Her father, a Scot from Paisley, worked in France as an agent for George Rowney, the purveyor of artists' materials, and had settled with his family in Sèvres. Simm's early childhood here was blissfully happy. She used to say that when she and her elder brother played in the garden they felt they were "surrounded by angels".
Events from the wider world were slow to impinge. Simm remembered the shock and terror she felt when, in April 1912, news came through of the sinking of the Titanic. For years afterwards, she suffered recurring nightmares that she was trapped and drowning in a freezing sea. Then war broke out, and, from her classroom, she could hear the boom of Big Bertha pounding Paris. In 1918, she was presented with an official medal for not having missed a single day's school in the entire course of the war.
Renée Simm first met William Lamb when he was invited to a salon given by her mother for soldiers on furlough. Less than eight years Renée's senior, he was a sculptor from Montrose of exceptional talent, and her father took an interest in him and in his work. When Lamb was invalided out of the Army suffering from trauma, and with an irrevocably shattered right hand, the Simm family took him in. Mentally restored by his stay with them, he returned home to Scotland, where he taught himself to draw, paint and sculpt with his left hand.
He became involved with some of the local writers and artists championing a Scottish Renaissance, notably a reporter on the Montrose Review, C.M. Grieve, who, as Hugh MacDiarmid, used Lamb's bust of him to illustrate his 1932 book Scots Unbound and Other Poems. In the same year, the then Duchess of York commissioned Lamb to model portrait heads of her daughters, the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Impressed by his work, she then commissioned him to sculpt a bust and paint a portrait of herself.
For Renée Simm, William Lamb, who died in 1951, was a model of what a true artist should be: unconcerned with worldly success, utterly dedicated to his craft. Until the end of her life, she devoted unflagging energy to keeping his memory alive, and his work in the public eye.
In the aftermath of the war, as the franc plummeted in value, George Rowney's French business collapsed. William Simm, who had invested his all in it, was forced to bring his family back to England, and then to Scotland. In 1927 he took over what had been a branch of the art shop Doig, Wilson & Wheatley (established in 1840), hard by Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. His health was precarious, however, and less than three years later, in 1930, he was dead. Renée, just 29, took over.
To relieve the boredom of shopkeeping, she trained during the Second World War as a picture framer. She also began to stock, along with artists' materials, work from the pottery of Bernard Leach. "Potting is one of the few activities today in which a person can use his natural faculties of head, heart, and hand in balance," Leach believed. It was a Lamb-like approach, and Leach (who died in 1979) became first a friend and then another hero for Simm. She built up her own collection of Leach pots, and they became a pension that saw her through a retirement of over 40 years.
Simm, remembered as a formidable figure behind the counter, sold Greyfriars Art Shop in 1967 (she had bought the premises 20 years earlier), and spent half the money raised on a ticket to Australia to visit her brother, stopping on the way in Athens, a city she had dreamt of seeing since her schooldays.
Back in Edinburgh she grew increasingly disenchanted with urban living. Browsing in a railway bookshop one day, she came upon a collection of pieces by the poet George Mackay Brown. She sensed through the writing a man who shared the humility and vision of Lamb and Leach, and she wrote to him, initially seeking advice on a biography of Lamb. Soon, she and Brown were corresponding weekly, and in 1983 she exchanged her Edinburgh flat for the tumbledown end of a traditional long house on the outskirts of Brown's home town, the Orkney seaport Stromness.
Aged 82, she moved into a youth hostel for three months while the house was rebuilt. The grain kiln became a showcase for William Lamb's life-size sculpture of a boy. The adjoining byre became a storage room for her treasures, including an architect's chest full of Lamb etchings. Her collection of Leach pots was stowed in the rafters, and when her funds ran low she would parcel one up, carry it down to the harbour and dispatch it on the ferry-boat St Ola to Sotheby's.
Fitting into an island community was not always straightforward. Simm did not mince her words, and some felt overwhelmed by her strength of character. But for George Mackay Brown, who barely travelled, and for whom those from outside Orkney therefore had a particular fascination, her company was invigorating. "Renée Simm," he wrote to a friend, "has the heart of a lion", and he marvelled at her "seemingly bottomless well of hope".
Once a week, she would sweep down into Stromness in her blue Citroën Diane (her driving might not be up to "mainland" standards, she conceded, but for island purposes it was perfectly adequate) and take Brown up to "Little Quildon" for some French cuisine, and an afternoon of dozing and chatting by her fire. He dedicated a book, Tryst on Egilsay (1989), and a number of poems to her. "Renée will outlive us all," he predicted.
Brown's death in 1996 was a profound shock to Simm, and left her somewhat isolated. She continued, nevertheless, to embrace life with astonishing vigour. Already active in the Orkney Transcendental Meditation community, at the age of 96 she was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
After celebrating her 100th birthday in London, she sold up and moved to an old people's home on the mainland, first in Aberfeldy, then in Perth. She was a quarter of a century older than many of her new companions, but her mind (and tongue) remained sharp and her memories vivid. She continued the careful process of dispersing her possessions, earlier this year returning the enormous original keys to the Greyfriars Art Shop.
Her great age became a source of curiosity not only to local newspapers, but also to herself. "I am afraid," she would say, with a mixture of jest and genuine bafflement, "that God has forgotten me."
She died on Armistice Day, within sight of her 105th birthday.
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