Researching British Art 1945-75 in Sheffield’s collection

Jan 04 2018

Research Curator Alex Hodby describes some of her initial findings in a project that looks at British Art in Sheffield’s collection from 1945-75.

Sheffield’s collection of visual art has fantastic examples by important artists from the 16th century to the present day. My job is to research a very specific part of that collection, focussing on British art made between 1945 and 1975. That was a time of tremendous change, not only for art, but also for politics and society more widely. For Sheffield, there was redevelopment and rebuilding after the destruction of the Second World War: new homes and urban planning changed parts of the city entirely. Sheffield’s art collection of works from that time reflects these issues of change, and the social and political upheavals that went along with it. The collection reveals huge shifts in art and the way in which the world – and our experience of it – was represented by artists. It is a period that covers the rise of pop art, post-war abstraction and the spirited realism of groups such as the ‘kitchen sink’ painters, who were closely associated with Sheffield. 

Painting of Upperthorpe, showing clearly the terraced housing and industrial buildings in the city

The whole project looks at over 1000 works by about 400 artists. One of the first things that I am investigating is the connection between the collection and Sheffield itself. Sometimes, that connection is very clear. David Hepher’s painting of Upperthorpe, for example, is evidently a Sheffield scene. It shows clearly the terraced housing and the industrial buildings in the city. Hepher made this painting in 1959, when he was studying in London. He travelled to Sheffield in the holidays because his father was a clergyman who had a parish here. Hepher’s painting captures the moment just as Sheffield was about to be transformed by new post-war housing and huge changes to manufacturing traditions. Hepher’s later work shows his fascination with the tower blocks he first saw being built in Sheffield around this time.

Other artists shared in that concern of transformation after the Second World War, and also the preservation of what had gone before. John Piper, for instance, was known for his love of the British landscape and its architecture. In this drawing and collage of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Piper draws our attention to the age and decoration of the building. As he did with other buildings, he records the atmosphere and the distinctive character of the 18th century house, but in a distinctly 20th century style. However, Piper’s interest in architecture was not limited to drawing and painting historical buildings. He also designed stained glass, including, famously, the window of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral (completed in 1962). For Sheffield, Piper made a window design for St Mark’s church in Broomhill, which he completed with the glassmaker, Patrick Reyntiens. St Mark’s was hit by an incendiary bomb on 12 December 1940, and only the spire and a porch survived. Architect George Pace designed a new modernist church which was built from 1958-63, and which included new stained glass. Piper’s design has bold and colourful flame-like shapes which complement the strong stone tracery (the geometric window frame) of Pace’s design. Piper’s window at St Mark’s makes a direct connection to Sheffield’s collection: there are four other works by Piper from this era in the collection.

In making these connections between the collection and Sheffield, we can begin to say more about wider artistic and architectural activity in the post-war years. Here, I’ve given two examples from the 1950s, and described points of interest that only hint at the deeper issues and connections with Sheffield and the artistic landscape in Britain in the years after the war. I’m looking forward to finding many more connections in the months to come.

Alex's post is supported by the Paul Mellon Foundation.

David Hepher’s Upperthorpe is currently on display in Picturing Sheffield at Weston Park Museum. There will be a display of works on paper from the period 1945-75 in the Graves Gallery from 10 March 2018. The display will focus on artists who are often better known as sculptors. There will be an accompanying curator’s talk on 22 March 2018.

Image 2: John Piper (1903-92), Blenheim Palace, North Front, Oxfordshire, 1953. © Estate of John Piper.
Image 1: David Hepher (b.1935), Upperthorpe, Sheffield, 1959. © David Hepher. 


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