When the idea of a school of art was first mooted for Sheffield in 1841 it was met, it’s fair to say, without much excitement. A public meeting about the proposal attracted just three people.
One of those was the organiser.
When a sketch was made of the event, the artist dryly captioned it with the words: “Great public enthusiasm.” Later, the first lesson would be held in a side room of the public baths in Glossop Road.
Yet from this inauspicious start, the resulting school - only the third of its kind ever opened in the UK - would grow into one of the country’s most outstanding artistic colleges and become a major part of Sheffield Hallam University today.
Now, exactly 170 years after opening, a new exhibition charts the history of this city institution through 30 works done by some of its finest (and most famous) alumni.
“Some of the artists who came here went on to achieve incredible things,” says curator John Basford, visiting fellow in art at Hallam. “But this is Sheffield so no-one ever shouts about it.
“You have work hanging in galleries around the world done by artists who learned their craft right here yet a lot of the time we don’t notice how influential the city has been. I felt this was a way to redress that.”
Thus, in the display - at Sheffield Institute Of Arts in Arundel Street - we have 30 works ranging from a self portrait done in 1865 (by William Sounes) to an abstract done in 1962 (Jack Smith). In between there’s an image showing a Ranmoor allotment valued at about £100,000 (by Harry Epworth); and a self-portrait by David Jagger, a Rotherham lad who would go on to become one of the 20th century’s finest portrait painters.
Work by post 1963 students will be displayed in a second display this time next year.
“It’s important we celebrate these things,” says John, who grew up in Parson Cross.
The school of art itself - firstly called Sheffield School Of Design - opened in 1843 with just 31 students attending classes. But by 1859, there were more than 1,000 pupils at the school which would move to Arundel Street and then, in 1945, to Psalter Lane.
“It is a city success story,” says John. “It deserves to be celebrated.”
Sheffield’s school of art has gone through many guises, been located in many places and has even had many names.
“But it has been one long-running institution,” says John Basford. “It’s a continuous thread from that first lesson in 1843 to the thousands of students studying arts at Sheffield Hallam University today.”
And those students? They include some pretty impressive names:
Godfrey Sykes (1824-66): designed most of the interior for the South Kensington Museum – now the Victoria and Albert Museum.
David Jagger (1891-1958): considered the foremost portrait painter of the 20th century with subjects including Winston Churchill, Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Lord Baden-Powell.
John Hoyland (1934-2011): appointed as professor of painting at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Fred Varley (1881–1969): moved to Canada and became one of the country’s famous Group Of Seven, a set of artists famed for their stunning landscapes and love of life.
David Mellor (1930-2009): known as the king of cutlery for his famous designs and the man who designed the British traffic light.