Saturday 30 May 2020

Portrait Bronze of Signorina Simi

Portrait Bronze of Signorina Simi (1890 -1987)

Bronze portrait of Nerina Simi by Anne Shingleton. Height 55cm, life-size

Thoughts on making the portait of my teacher, Nerina Simi.

Before I can describe the emotions I experienced making this portrait sculpture I would like to explain how I came to study under Signorina Simi and why she was so important in my life, and in that of many others too.

It was a chance in a million in the days before the internet to have knowledge of the teaching of Nerina Simi. (Her real name is Nera, but she was often called Nerina). Her fame instead was spread worldwide by her students, and that is how I heard.
It was the late 1970s in the UK, and I had completed 3 years of university (Zoology) and 2 years art school, and was working from my parents’ home with whatever came my way as an illustrator, printmaker and portrait artist.
At that time galleries and institutions were encouraging contemporary art to be abstract, to make installations or videos. However much I tried the British art environment could not offer me a future. I did not fit in. On visiting a private exhibition by the artist Pamela Russell in my local Dorset countryside, I admired the light in her paintings. She told me how she had studied in the Italian city of Florence, with a lady called Nerina Simi, who, if she was still alive, would be very old, and gave me the address to write to.
The studio Simi on the corner of Via Tripoli, Firenze.
To cut a long story short, at the invitation by letter of Nerina herself, there I was that following October in 1980, clutching my portfolio and anxiously ringing the bell of the studio at No 1, Via Tripoli, Florence.
I was shown in by the robust looking maid and indicated to wait in a little dark anteroom. A small figure limped slowly down the corridor towards me. She was a bright eyed, slightly stooped lady with hair tidily drawn back in a bun and a string of pearls around her neck. She welcomed me in English. With a gracious, broad smile she chose her words carefully and instantly put me at my ease. I was to start the next day. You can imagine my excitement!

Photos of the interior of the studio taken in the late 1970s
I found myself an empty easel at the back of the studio, far from the posing model. Nerina Simi would visit each student at every morning and afternoon session. From where I was sitting I could see all the other students’ drawings and they seemed to be going so slowly. When she entered the room I was the first student to be visited, and I had already placed the whole figure on the page.
Very gently and simply she explained how to measure and how to look and how to translate my observations onto paper delicately with a sharpened stick of charcoal. My errors shouted out at me, all of which suddenly seemed monumental and hugely embarassing. I turned my paper over and started again.
Nerina Simi with student Joke Frima late 70s

As she moved on to the next student, I had to struggle to hide my tears of relief and happiness. Finally for the first time in my life, in the art world, not only was I being taught by someone who said it how it was, but she gave logical reasons to back up her arguments, and did so in a kindly way. This was a scientific language that was familiar to me. It had been a stressful decision to come to Italy on my own and in that moment I knew I was in the right place, at the right time.
Photo taken of me in the studio when making an informal visit outside studio hours in 1981.
 Most, but not all, the students in the studio were like me, non-Italian, female and young, so it was easy for me to make friends. “La Signorina”, as we affectionately called her was like a kindly mother figure to us all individually, and we were all aware that it was a special priviledge to be studying with her. Nearly 25 years on since her death those of us who remain in touch with each other still consider ourselves part of this very special family.
I was intoxicated by the experience of my new student life in Florence. I was in my late 20s, and with a sense of freedom from my English upbringing. I was literally walking down streets that would have been familiar to great artists of the past; Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Every day, except Sundays, I sat with my fellow students in a high ceilinged room that reeked of the late 1800s, with her father’s, Filadelfo Simi’s, (1849 – 1923), dusty paintings stacked high on all the walls. The lessons we were learning were a tangible link through him, to the Parisian atelier/studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) where Filadelfo and so many great artists of the past had studied. It was if we were, in that Studio Simi, in a special little bubble of time that had stood still since the century before.
A rare snap of Nerina smiling as she was unaware of the photo being taken.

 With the memory of those 2 years with the Signorina now fading and my new home in Pietrasanta, Italy, a town famous for its tradition of sculpture, I decided to attempt her portrait in clay. I wanted to show her as a strong, but old lady, still focused on passing on her knowledge. She continued to receive students with work, teaching up until about 2 months before her death at 97 years.
Finding photographic references was a problem because it was well known that she did not like to have her photo taken. But thanks to many ex-students who had sneaked a few snaps I managed to collect enough to give me the basic measurements for a profile and a frontal view.
Gradually the clay started to take on form, then turned into a portrait, and with a lot of hard work, achieved a likeness and then became the Signorina. That last step gave me a terrific feedback. I felt I had recreated her. What a sense of power! 

Part of the sculpture in being worked in clay
 From then on the sculpture took on a presence which I found myself treating as if it was really her there. I would say “Buongiorno Signorina” to her as I took the plastic sheeting off the wet clay in the morning, and excused myself to her as I sprayed her with water before replacing the plastic in the evening and saying “Buonanotte Signorina”! One day as I was working with my nose very close to her raised arm, in order to work details on the face, I was shocked by my surprise that my nose did not smell the scent of a person and instead smelt very damp clay. That showed me how much my emotions had become involved.

Working on the clay model in the autumn of 2019, all my reference photos pinned on display behind.
Besides passing on the techniques of drawing and painting, often with a sly sense of humour, The Signorina gave deeper lessons that have supported me all my life; lessons of perseverance, humility, and openness to learning that make achieving new standards possible. She was not only a very experienced and able teacher but a painter too and nobly dedicated to her long life of art, which in her time was extraordinary for a woman.

This sculpture represents my thanks and my tribute to honour her memory.

The process of transforming the clay into bronze is a complicated one and I have described it on my website (
Thanks to THE MARIANI FOUNDRY for the foundry work on the bronze, and to Studio BURATTI, for the clay studio.

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