Picturing Sheffield at Millennium Galleries is the first exhibition of its kind to bring together artwork of the city and its ever-changing landscapes. With paintings spanning over 200 years, we went along to discover the history of the beloved Steel City through the canvas…
As the introduction to the exhibition correctly says, Sheffield is truly a “city of contradictions”.
On the one hand, a green city of villages nestled in the Peak District, on the other, a de-industrialised metropolis with a concrete hangover.
However, as anyone from the Steel City will tell you, it is a place with many difference faces, histories and geographies.
Through art dating over 200 years, Picturing Sheffield offers us a glimpse into this great ever-changing and complex city.
Pre Industrial: City of Seven Hills
Before Sheffield was consumed with the smog and steam of the steel industry, its seven hills were gloriously depicted in their gorgeous, untouched green state. One of the works on display was William John Stevenson’s “River Don at Wardsend”. Painted in the early 1800’s, it depicts Hillsbourough in a way many wouldn’t recognise today.
Stevenson’s work contrasts with painting of Bridgehouses in the 1840’s when Sheffield’s industry was beginning to thrive. Painted by an unknown artist, it would be this image of redbrick and chimney stacks that would come dominate the city’s landscape when captured on canvas.
Industrial: City of Smog
Perhaps one of the most striking paintings in the collection at Picturing Sheffield was that by John Simmons. Using oil on canvas, Simmons cleverly contrasts Sheffield’s smog with that of a colourful fair visiting the city.
For most us living here today it is hard to imagine just how bright and jovial the lights of a fairground would have seemed to those used to life of varying shades of grey.
Bleak works by those such as Stanley Robert Jones’s “Hopeless Dawn” seek to reiterate the hard daily toil of faceless workers living in the city.
Derrick Greaves’s work carries a similarly desolate tone, yet makes Sheffield almost unrecognisable. Growing up in the leafy suburbs of Woodseats, its easy to conclude that Greaves’s distopian, post-apocalypic depiction does do Sheffield a slight injustice.
1960s: Cities in the Sky
After the second world war ended, you could be quick to forgive those who saw a bright, modern vision for Britain’s bombed out cities. With inner city slum clearances and cleaner air, the sky must have seemed the limit in the 1960s – literally.
When first constructed, Sheffield concrete cities in the sky must have seemed a feat in modern utopian architecture. Roger Mayne’s photograph of Park Hill flats 1961 almost sells the dream. You could be forgiven for believing a sense of “community” was possible in these high rise apartment blocks. The reality however was a little less optimistic.
One of the more touching display’s on show at the exhibition was that of ephemera from Kelvin Flats. Built in 1969 the flats were suffering from crime and so called “concrete cancer” as early as the 1980s. Despite being demolished in 1995, paper cuttings from The Sheffield Star record a proud community of core residents sad to see them go.
1970s-90s: Concrete Hangover
For many Sheffield inhabitants of a certain age, the city’s post-war concrete hangover remained with us as recently as the millennium.
Now the rubble foundations of the Winter Garden’s in the town centre, its nice to be reminded by Jonathan Wilkinson just how awful the brutalist “Egg Box” really was. Built in 1977 as an extension to the town hall, it’s roof garden apparently provided some of the best views in Sheffield – mainly because you couldn’t see the monstrosity you were standing on.
On a more upbeat note, Pete McKee’s artwork seeks to inject a little humorous colour into his nostalgic pop-art of yesteryear. His affectionate paintings of the “Hole in the Road” and Sheffield’s now deceased Castle Market, are probably as close as you can get to the real charm of the city and its inhabitants at the exhibition.
Watch Pete’s lovely interview about his work and connection to Sheffield in the video below…
Today: The Greenest City In Europe
As we head into 2015, Sheffield’s smog has cleared and today is regarded as one of the worlds greenest cities with more trees per person than any other european city.
Perhaps the work that most fully reflects Sheffield’s historically contradicting and complex landscape is Sean William’s “How Can This Survive” (2013). The painting purposely focuses on a space that is neither completely rural or urban. Sheffield’s modernist Hallamshire hospital building neighbours a turn of the century redbrick property, both framed in a lush green garden of roses and trees.
To me this represents the true landscape of Sheffield – a historical modern city set in the rolling green pastures of the Peak District.
by Melissa Hunt
Picturing Sheffield at Millennium Gallery is on until 12th April 2015.
Pay a visit…