Monday, February 09, 2015

Picturing Sheffield

When I first started coming regularly to Sheffield in the late nineties it was to work in a building described in Owen Hatherley's The New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) as a 'thrillingly paranoid Cold War megastructure.'  In those days I still carried around strong memories of the traumatic TV drama Threads (1984) in which Sheffield is devastated and plunged into a nuclear winter, a conclusion to the Cold War that seemed a very real possibility then.  The local Town Hall officials in Threads, people like my work colleagues, end up buried alive.  Such extreme fears for the future have come to seem unreal, an old bad dream that is becoming hard to recollect.  Our office moved some time ago to a fresh site at St Paul's Place, built over what had been the New Town Hall extension.  This structure -'the Egg Box', as it was not very affectionately know - had been erected in 1977 with concrete designed to last five hundred years, but only lasted until 2002.  I didn't witness its demolition... but then I had already seen it in ruins, blown apart by the bomb blast in Threads.

Jonathan Wilkinson, The Egg Box, 2007
© the artist

Jonathan Wilkinson's print The Egg Box records the design of this lost building, simplified and extracted from its surroundings and the people who used to work there.  It can be seen on display in the Millenium Gallery, another new building by the Town Hall in the 'Heart of the City' redevelopment. The current exhibition, Picturing Sheffield, includes many such reminders of the city's vanishing architecture.  Next to a painting and photograph of the Kelvin Flats - streets in the sky built in 1967 - there is a case containing artifacts retrieved before the building was pulled down, displayed like archaeological finds: keys, newspaper clippings, an old sign. Castle Market, subject of another Wilkinson print, as well as a painting called Elvis at Castle Fish Market, was still open but under threat when The New Ruins of Britain came out. 'The recession has given it a stay of execution likely to last a couple of years.  Get there while you can: nothing like it will be built again.'  It was demolished in 2013.

Henry Rushbury, Snig Hill from Angel Street, 1941
© the artist's estate

Sheffield always seems to be in a state of flux.  William Boden's watercolour snapshots painted in 1903 record views that no longer exist: Gilbert Street - 'these houses and this passage way have been demolished'; steps leading to Arundel Lane - 'this area has since been redeveloped and looks markedly different'; the Sheffield Canal Basin - now 'converted into luxury flats looking out over the water.'  Even as he worked Boden knew the city was ever-changing; painting the Pheasant Inn Yard he noted that it was about to be demolished.  The Sheffield Blitz, just two nights of bombing in December 1940, left 78,000 houses damaged.  Henry Rushbury's Angel Street from Snig Hill, Sheffield shows its aftermath, a scene of smouldering rubble hosed down by a group of soldiers. Derrick Greaves' painting of the city is a composite portrait in industrial greys and austerity browns, executed at a time when the war damaged areas were being cleared for the new housing and offices that have now been removed and replaced again.

Derrick Greaves, Sheffield, 1953
© Derrick Greaves, courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London

This sense of constantly forging a new urban environment resonates with the image of a steel industry which began here in the eighteenth century, at around the same time as the first images of the city.  However, alongside work with titles like Men Seated Around a Fire in a Grinding Shop and Rebuilding a Blast Furnace the exhibition includes several paintings where traces of industry are hard to discern.  In early views Sheffield is still relatively small - in Turner's watercolour it could almost be a rural village, dominated by its church.  In the nineteenth century it could still be painted as a rural idyll with green pastures flanking the river Don and cattle drinking from a pool at Hillsborough. But as the city grew it seems to have been harder to find vistas and scenes that would appeal to prevailing tastes.  Bill Brandt's photograph Misty Evening in Sheffield is no more than an abstract detail, and its 'mist' is probably industrial fog. 

J.M.W. Turner, View of Sheffield from Derbyshire Lane, 1797
© Guild of St George & Museums Sheffield

Is Sheffield Ugly? asked Harold Coop in his 1926 painting. Owen Hatherley argues that post-war architecture here made great use 'of the thing that makes Sheffield truly special - its landscape.  Practically any view here provides you with a photogenic picture of either a cityscape or the Peak District.'  Looking around this exhibition on my most recent trip to Sheffield I got a real sense of this - it would be hard for this city, framed by its green hills, to be 'ugly', even though Hatherley finds little to admire in its newer buildings.  Back across the square from the Gallery, I looked out from our office over the city at the patterns of buildings stretching away beyond the Town Hall.  On the distant high ground beyond, patches of snow shone in the afternoon sun.

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