Wearside Echoes: Tributes paid to artist who brought Sunderland’s past back to life on canvas

TALENTED ARTIST: Jim Keers with a painting based on an Echo photo of newspaper delivery vans.
TALENTED ARTIST: Jim Keers with a painting based on an Echo photo of newspaper delivery vans.
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A RETIRED sign-writer who turned to art to help him battle cancer has died at the age of 83.

Jim Keers “just couldn’t be rallied” after falling ill several years ago – until his family urged him to start sketching old photos featured in Wearside Echoes.

Art shows, global sales and a website followed. “Painting gave me a fresh interest in life,” Jim told the Echo last year. “I always dreamed of being an artist, but war stopped me.”

Jim, the son of a Hendon Paper Mill labourer, was born in Margaret Street, Grangetown, in 1928. He moved with his parents, James and Isabella, to Ocean Road as a toddler.

“My father was originally in the hotel business,” Jim later recalled. “He started at the Turk’s Head Hotel in Newcastle. They even sent him to Switzerland to learn new languages.

“Eventually he went freelance and, according to family legend, once waited on the Tsar of Russia while working for the Russian Embassy. I don’t know if that is true, though.”

Jim, the youngest of three, attended Commercial Road School before joining West Park after passing his 11-plus exam. His evenings, after homework, were spent sketching.

Indeed, such was his passion for drawing that, at around the same time, he won a scholarship to study commercial art at Sunderland Art College – fitting his studies around school.

“I dreamed of being an artist, but tuition was limited as the war had just started. Art materials were in short supply, and teachers were being called up for war service,” he said.

Jim went on to become an apprentice grocer with the Co-op after leaving school. The job left little time for hobbies, although he still managed the odd pencil sketch occasionally.

National Service with the RAF followed, during which time he met future wife Mary. He went on to join Hepworth’s Tailoring at Pallion, where she worked, after completing his stint.

Love soon blossomed across the cutting room floor and the couple tied the knot on Boxing Day 1951. One daughter, Susan, made their happy little family complete.

“I sometimes painted on a night time after I married, and I made rocking horses and dolls houses too, but I never believed I could make a career out of my art,” recalled Jim.

Despite his modesty, tales of Jim’s artistic talents soon spread. In 1966 he received his first commission – to paint Lord Nelson’s ship HMS Victory at Trafalgar for Red House WMC.

He also dusted off his calligraphy skills, creating a special scroll – commemorating the names of all the Russian football players who visited the club during the 1966 World Cup.

Jim went on to swap his rag trade career for a job as a sign writer, but had to wait until his retirement before finding enough time to develop his artistic talents any further.

Fate, however, was to deal him a tough blow. Shortly after celebrating the success of an exhibition at the Sunniside Writers’ and Artists Collective in 2005, he fell seriously ill.

“We just couldn’t get him rallied round when Jim was first diagnosed with cancer,” said Mary. “Eventually our daughter Susan took some of his paintings to get them framed.

“The sight of the pictures all framed and looking nice really seemed to cheer him up. He returned to his art and painting gave him a new lease of life – it really did.”

Jim continued to paint almost daily until the months before his death. Nostalgic scenes of Sunderland remained his favourite subject – with his prints sold around the world.

“Painting nostalgic scenes is what I enjoy – although I do take a little artistic licence sometimes!” he said last year. “Sunderland hasn’t half changed since I was a boy.”

Jim died peacefully at his Washington home on September 26, after a long battle against cancer. He left wife Mary, daughter Susan, granddaughter Natalie and son-in-law Stuart.

“He was a gorgeous dad, just like my best friend,” said Susan. “He was very kind, caring and always considered others before himself. He will be missed by many, many people.”

Mary, who celebrated her Diamond Wedding anniversary with Jim just last year, added: “He was a real gentleman, a friend to all and an inspiration to everyone who met him.”