Feb 29 2016
Curator of Visual Art Hannah Brignell talks about the life and work of the great Sheffield artist Godfrey Sykes:
28 February 2016 marks 150 years since the death of the great Sheffield artist Godfrey Sykes. We are currently celebrating his work with a display at the Graves Art Gallery, which looks at the breadth of his talents.
Godfrey Sykes is one of Sheffield’s adopted artists - he led a fascinating life and researching into this display has allowed me to delve into the world of this very talented man. I was also lucky enough to meet some of his family back in 2013, who came all the way from Arizona to have a look at our vast collection of drawings, paintings, designs and metalwork in our stores. They also very kindly donated a pen holder which was presented to Sykes from the Sheffield School of Art upon his departure to London. You can see this in the Millennium Gallery’s Metalwork Collection displays.
It is very hard to pick just a bit of his life to talk about as he achieved such a great deal, so I am going to cover just a few aspects of his life that I found particularly interesting.
Sheffield was at the heart of the metalwork industry, and young Godfrey began his career working with Messrs. Bell and Tomkin, who were Sheffield engravers. He also designed salvers, tea and coffee pots for Edward Atkin, but unfortunately there are very few examples of his metalwork in public collections. At the same time, he began painting interiors of workshops, mills and forges. He also explored the beautiful countryside surrounding Sheffield, taking his sketchbook and watercolours, as well as making stunning detailed sketches of the buildings in the centre of the city; Norfolk Market, Sheffield Infirmary and St Pauls Church.
He became a prominent part of the Sheffield School of Art (now Sheffield Institute of Arts at Hallam University) as one of its first students, later going on to teach there too. The Sheffield School of Art was founded in 1843 and became the centre for art in Sheffield. It has seen many well-known Sheffield artists, designers and musicians including Annie Bindon Carter, John Hoyland, David and Charles Sargent Jagger, Nick Park and Jarvis Cocker just to name a few.
Sykes created stunning interior decorations for many houses and offices in Sheffield, including Wortley Hall, Fieldhead and Norton Grange. Sykes was in demand and moved down to London in 1861, taking down some assistants from Sheffield. Among them was a Mr Lockwood Kipling, whose son Rudyard became the famous author we all know today.
In London, Sykes was surrounded by a circle of celebrities, meeting people such as Fredrick Leighton, Seymour Haden and Charles Dickens. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were regular visitors to see the progress on his designs for the V&A.
From an account in the Cornhill magazine, it talks about his personality and his hobbies. It mentions him bringing a comic element to a dinner of artists and a boy-like attitude to life at home, including playing cricket in the hall. One of Sykes great passions in life apart from his art was flying kites and skating.
Sykes was often ill and sadly died very young at the age of just 41 on 28 February 1866. He often had trouble with his lungs and became frail and unable to walk, let alone work. However, he was a determined man and even illness didn’t stop him - he was hoisted up the scaffolding at the South Kensington Museum to give his last directions but unfortunately died just as the workmen were finishing his designs.
Sheffield’s collection holds almost 100 works by Godfrey Sykes - you can see a selection on display in the Graves Art Gallery until 3 May 2016. From September 2016 you will be able to see a number of works on display in our new ‘Picturing Sheffield’ gallery at Weston Park.
Top: Up the Porter, Sheffield by Godfrey Sykes. Image © Museums Sheffield
Bottom: The Two Grinders by Godfrey Sykes, circa 1858. Image © Museums Sheffield