Jan 15 2016
Curator of Visual Art Liz Waring talks about the life and work of philanthropist JG Graves and his influence in Sheffield:
Having worked in the Graves Gallery for a number of years, I have of course always been aware of John George Graves and his philanthropy, but the more I learn about him, the more I realise what a wonderfully generous man he was to his adopted city of Sheffield.
When I first arrived in Sheffield, I was amazed to learn that this was the home of the man that had largely invented mail order shopping, something very close to my heart (well in its modern day guise of internet shopping!), and what a stroke of genius to introduce the concept of monthly payments. His innovation and work ethic certainly deserved the wealth he created, but thankfully his generosity matched his success.
You don’t have to go far in Sheffield before you come across his name again and again: Graves Park, Graves Trust Homes, Graves Tennis and Leisure Centre, as well as the Graves Gallery. However, many other gifts to the city do not bear his name, such as Ecclesall Woods, Blacka Moor and even a wing of the Children’s Hospital.
“Since the year 1886 when I started single handed in business for myself, I have been a steady-worker, and within my means a steady supporter of good causes. I have striven to share my interests in art and travel with my fellow citizens and I am content that my well meant efforts should be left to speak for themselves.”
Of most interest to me, unsurprisingly, is the Graves Art Gallery. In 1929 J G Graves gave £30,000 to the construction of a new library with the condition that a gallery would be built on the top floor, giving the gallery its name when it opened in 1934.
J G Graves collected a wide range of artworks, from 16th century portraiture to Victorian artists such as Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and from the Spanish 17th century artist Esteban Murillo to his own contemporary Roger Fry. His aim was to present: “…a well- balanced and representative collection of English, Dutch and French Art”.
He first began collecting art in 1899 and throughout his lifetime he amassed over 3000 pictures, 700 of which he gave to the city of Sheffield to be displayed in the Graves Gallery. Two of the first works he purchased were The Landlady and At the Bazaar by James Collinson, a pair of Victorian paintings which he bought for £2 each.
Top: David Jagger, Dr. J. G. Graves (1866–1945) © the artist’s estate.
Bottom: At the Bazaar, 1857 by James Collinson. Image © Museums Sheffield