Curator Louisa Briggs on putting Sheffield in the frame for the latest exhibition at the Millennium Gallery.
When I began working on Picturing Sheffield, I knew it would be an interesting project but I didn’t expect it to change how I looked at the city. The exhibition includes just over 90 paintings, drawings and photographs in Museums Sheffield’s collection which show different views of the city over the past few hundred years.
It’s amazing how much Sheffield has altered even during the 20th century. Victorian gentrifications, slum clearances, the Sheffield blitz and ‘60s ideas for a brave vision of the city’s future have all had a dramatic impact upon the city we know today. During my research for this exhibition, I’ve spent a lot of time examining images of how the city used to look compared with how it is now, trying to work out the specific location of different paintings. This has been an interesting but fairly difficult task, particularly as artists are notorious for changing the composition of a view by missing things out or adding them in! But looking at these images has made me think about a city I thought I knew well in a completely different way.
I’ve become obsessed with buildings. Generally when we walk around somewhere we only look at things at eye-level, whereas often the top of the building looks completely different. The shops down Chapel Walk are a good example of this. The shop fronts look bright and modern, but look up and the street is lined with beautiful Victorian architecture. I now spend a lot of time trying to imagine how it would once have looked and thinking about the history associated with a specific location. For example, the solicitors’ car park in Paradise Square was once overflowing with people attending political meetings and the Alexandra Building, which was at the junction of Hawley Street and Lee Croft, was built during the 1909 roller-skating craze that hit Sheffield - the building had the best and most silent floor in Britain!
The city is filled with ghosts of buildings from its past and one of the sections of the exhibition in-cludes many of Sheffield’s buildings that either no longer exist or have been reimagined for the future. The more I researched the exhibition, the more I became interested in just how much Shef-field’s cityscape has altered in the past century or so. Sheffield has a history of creating brave and innovative buildings, and then destroying them a few decades later. The Hole in the Road, the Wedding Cake, the Egg Boxes are just a few examples. Sheffielders often had a love-hate relationship with these buildings while they were standing, but the moment they go there’s a real nos-talgia for them and they still loom large in the collective psyche.
As part of the films we’ve created for the exhibition we interviewed a host of people that had a direct relationship with some of the city’s most controversial structures, including the Egg Boxes, Kelvin Flats and Tinsley Towers. Talking to people who had worked or lived in or near these places was fascinating; I’d read a lot about all of these buildings themselves when I was researching the exhibition, but hearing people’s personal experiences made me reassess and question what I had learnt. What happens when buildings that are a significant part of the city’s horizon, and also a big part of our lives, are lost? What impact does Sheffield’s changing skyline have on the city’s sense of identity? These are just some of the questions we hope the exhibition will encourage people to consider.
Picturing Sheffield: Views of a City continues at the Millennium Gallery until 12 April 2015 - entry to the exhibition is free.
Top - Jonathan Wilkinson, The Egg Box © the artist
Bottom - Henry Rushbury, Snig Hill from Angel Street, 1941 © the artist's estate
Dec 10 2014