How the legacy of Sheffield benefactor Graves lives on 150 years since his birth

Graves Gallery, Sheffield.
Graves Gallery, Sheffield.
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There’s a reason the name Graves lives on in Sheffield - even if some of those living in the city are not familiar with the precise history behind some of the buildings and locations that bear the name.

Graves Art Gallery, Graves Park, Graves Trust Homes and Graves Health and Sports Centre are all gifts given to Sheffield by JG Graves, born in 1866. His donations also helped establish Sheffield University’s Students’ Union, known in part as the ‘Graves Building’.

JG Graves, 1930

JG Graves, 1930

And tonight (Thursday) there will be a celebration of one of Sheffield’s most generous philanthropists.

The art gallery will host an evening reception to honour the 150th anniversary of John George Graves’ birth.

The JG Graves Charitable Trust has also marked the occasion by acquiring two new works for the city’s collection - Grayson Perry’s ‘Comfort Blanket’ and an iron and silver vessel by Kurt Kalow.

Not a Sheffielder by birth, Graves moved to the city from Lincolnshire to become an apprentice watchmaker at 14. Six years later he was running his own watchmaking business which expanded into a hugely successful mail order empire. After amassing a small fortune, he then became more involved with the running of the city, taking on the roles of councillor and then Lord Mayor. He became Alderman in 1926 and was awarded the freedom of the city in 1929.

One of Graves’ keenest passions was the public ownership of open spaces; Blacka Moor and Ecclesall Woods are outdoor places which have their origins in the work done by the Graves Trust.

“He used to love walking out towards the countryside and he was also a very keen cyclist,” said Dona Womack, chair of the charitable trust.

His life was greatly influenced by the Methodist upbringing he received, said Dona, and later it became consumed by the affection he felt for his adopted city. The first gift donated to Sheffield by Graves was in 1903.

“I believe it was Pearl Street playground. I know he began with small projects like this, mainly playgrounds for children.”

The Graves Trust was set up in 1930 and was chaired passionately by Graves until his death in 1945. He donated over £1 million in his lifetime, including pictures and artworks from his private collection.

“He believed nobody should be excluded from experiencing art. A lot of his collection is here and at the Sheffield Central Library and Mappin Art Galleries.

“We have always tried to stick closely to the aims of funding set out by JG Graves.

“It has been relatively easy because the trust has always had a family feel.

“Since it began in 1930, we have had fewer than 40 trustees, and Richard Graves, his great-nephew, is still on the board.”

Apart from open spaces and art galleries, Graves was also interested in the advancement of education and science and the promotion of sport and health, as well as support for disadvantaged groups and other community-led projects.

“One of the groups that we help regularly is The Happy Outings – it’s also known as the North Sheffield Handicapped Association – and then there’s the Sheffield Disabled Fishing Group. Occasionally, we do become involved in bigger projects, like the Graves Woodland Discovery Centre in Ecclesall Woods.”

The trust does not permit grants to schools or hospitals who already have mainstream forms of income, and only gives money to charities within the boundaries of Sheffield.

“He was very socially aware. He built housing for workers and for his own pensioners, who had worked for him.

“The trust gives money away on a quarterly basis – we roughly give out about 50 grants a year.

“Over the years we have built up a portfolio of investments, and the grants are generated from the interest on those.

“With the parks and the art galleries, none of these assets belong to the trust. All of the gifts have been returned and signed over to the city council.”

Dona is confident that the trust and the council will continue to maintain the work of one of the city’s greatest benefactors.

“We are very proud of our founder. His name will always stand for a generosity of spirit and we would do anything to protect it. I know that times change, but we will always do our best to preserve our heritage.”

The evening will run from 6pm to 8pm, and will feature a screening of a specially-commissioned film narrated by Sheffield broadcaster and writer Paul Allen.

“The film is about Graves’ legacy - how his work has impacted on the lives of everyone living in the city of Sheffield.”