A new lease of life for the Graves Gallery

Aug 10 2021

For the past six months there’s been a lot of work going on behind-the-scenes to renovate, redecorate and redisplay works at the Graves Gallery, and we’re very excited to announce we’ll be able to welcome you again from Friday 3 September!

Thanks to generous support from the Ampersand Foundation, we’ve been able to transform four of the galleries in the Graves – walls have been re-cladded, spaces redecorated and over a third of the artworks on display have been changed over.

When we reopen, you’ll be able to see Phlegm’s Pandemic Diary, a new exhibition of work by sculptor Mark Firth, an exhibition curated by pioneering artist Keith Piper, and a new display on the theme of landscape.

It’s been over ten years since the gallery had a major redisplay and some of the spaces were in desperate need of a refresh. We’re really pleased to have been able to make these improvements, and curate new displays that will showcase more of Sheffield’s collection.

Removing work from the wall in the Graves Gallery

Making the improvements to the gallery has been a significant undertaking. The project began back in the winter with the removal of the artworks from the gallery walls, allowing skilled contractors to re-clad galleries 2, 3 and 6. The contractors removed the existing wall cladding before fixing new sheets of MDF to create smooth walls – a first in decades for these galleries.

Empty Graves Gallery

Any renovation work on a historic building like the Graves has to be done with the utmost care, but it’s fantastic to literally peel back the layers of history. Here you can see a photograph of the top layer of the walls coming away from the back board, which to our surprise turned out to reveal vertical wooden planks. These planks had been covered in hessian many decades ago and the hessian had then been covered with layers and layers of paint over the years.

Wall work at the Graves Gallery

A particularly wonderful discovery was this lovely set of signatures by the original builders of the Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, which opened in 1934! 

Builders' signatures on the walls at Graves Gallery

The final phase of the improvements was the installation of new MDF walls and woodwork, that were then painted and finished ready for the new displays. 

Painting the Graves Gallery

The newly reclad and redecorated temporary exhibition space, galleries 2 and 3, will reopen with an exhibition celebrating the work of sculptor Mark Firth. Precision as a State of Mind will include new and recent works, including Ten Cubes for Sheffield, a new series made exclusively for the exhibition. The works on display showcase Firth’s continual preoccupation with geometry and his exploration of the meeting point of art and engineering. Firth’s practice reflects a long family connection to Sheffield’s engineering history – his great, great grandfather was the steel magnate and philanthropist Mark Firth, whose generosity helped found the University of Sheffield. Mark Firth, August Triptych, 2014 © Mark Firth

Also on display will be Pandemic Diary by Phlegm – a collection of 67 pen and ink drawings and one engraving, which go on public display for the very first time. This new acquisition chronicles the acclaimed artist’s response to lockdown and joins the city’s visual art collection thanks to funding from the Contemporary Art Society Rapid Response Fund. This vital fund was set up to allow organisations to continue to collect works during the pandemic. 

Phlegm, Don't Panic (Pandemic Diary series, no. 1), 2020 © the artist

Another new highlight is a powerful exploration of alternative and outsider perspectives on our recognised histories curated by artist Keith Piper, one of the co-founders of the seminal Blk Art Group. The new display is led by Piper’s own large-scale work The Seven Rages of Man (1984-2018), which imagines seven ages, or rages, through which the black dispersed population has passed, but also the future to come. Alongside the work, Piper presents objects from the city’s collection offering visitors a chance to reflect on the histories they represent, including currency issued by the Royal Africa Company, which transported more people into slavery than any other British company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, and t-shirts protesting South African apartheid in the 1980s.

Keith Piper during install at Graves Gallery

The final gallery redisplay embraces the theme of landscape and showcases many of the remarkable landscape paintings and works on paper from the city’s collection. Returning favourites including JMW Turner’s Opening of the Vintage at Macon (around 1803) and Sheila Fell’s Snowscape, Cumbria (1977) go show alongside new additions including works from Fay Godwin’s atmospheric Yorkshire photographic series Remains of Elmet (1979) and another new acquisition of work by Haroon Mirza, which joins the city’s collection through the generosity of the artist and facilitated by the Contemporary Art Society.

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon by JMW Turner

The Ampersand funding has also supported specialist conservation work on some of the works in the collection. Several paintings have been conserved, including Evening in Benares, India by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) that has been fully cleaned and re-varnished and Mosque near the Bab al-Nasr, Cairo by John Varley II (1850–1933) which has had its frame conserved. Grayson Perry’s Comfort Blanket tapestry has undergone conservation work to maintain its condition.

Evening in Benares, India by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945)

It’s been fantastic to see the improvements this first phase of the project has brought. There’s still a lot of work that we plan to do at the Graves Gallery, and The Ampersand Foundation will be supporting us with further redisplays, conservation of the city’s art collection, work with schools and artists, and more over the next four years, including:

  • Subsequent rehangs of a third of the gallery’s collection displays every year, offering greater opportunity to see much more of the city’s collection, more often
  • Further galleries co-curated with external partners including artists, experts and specialists, bringing new perspectives to the displays
  • A programme of conservation which will see multiple artworks every year receiving the specialist care needed for them to go on display and safeguard them for future generations
  • From 2022, a series of exhibitions, created with, by and for young people, which will see artworks from the collection go on display in schools and other venues
  • New artist commissions which will invite artists to develop new, innovative ways of engaging with the works in Sheffield’s collection through their own artistic practice.

All the team have worked extremely hard on the project throughout the pandemic and, although circumstances have inevitably made the redevelopment more challenging at times, it’s great to see the works go on the walls. We’re excited to be able to welcome you to explore very soon!

You can plan your visit to the gallery and find out about the steps we’re continuing to take to keep everyone safe here

Images top to bottom:

1. Packing away works from the visual art collection in preparation for renovation works at the Graves Gallery © Sheffield Museums Trust
2. Removing works from the walls in preparation for renovation works at the Graves Gallery © Sheffield Museums Trust
3. Newly emptied room at the Graves Gallery © Sheffield Museums Trust
4. Stripping back the walls at the Graves Gallery © Sheffield Museums Trust
5. Signatures by the original builders of the Graves Gallery, dating from 1934 © Sheffield Museums Trust
6. Painting the newly reclad spaces © Sheffield Museums Trust
7. Mark Firth, August Triptych, 2014 © Mark Firth
8. Phlegm, Don't Panic (Pandemic Diary series, no. 1), 2020 © the artist 
9. Keith Piper during exhibition install © Sheffield Museums Trust
10. Opening of the Vintage at Macon (around 1803), JMW Turner
11. Evening in Benares, India by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945)





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