Artist Joe Scarborough is a Sheffield legend and here's why

“I earn a living on bits of coloured rag and that gives me a great kick.”

Saturday, 30th October 2021, 7:00 am

This is Sheffield artist Joe Scarborough, who lives on a boat in Victoria Quays where he is currently painting a work which will grace Olympic venues.

Born in Pitsmoor, a former miner at Thorpe Hesley Colliery and a Sheffield legend with a star on the Walk Of Fame. Joe, aged 83, likes working, something which started at the pit. “Being paid to do hard work had my father thinking that was a splendid thing and I must confess I enjoyed it,” he says.

“What I enjoyed was meeting people who set standards.

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Artist Joe Scarborough in Sheffield Canal Basin.

“John Hopkin was my pit father - make sure you put fa-ther - who could quote Shakespeare ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends!’

“Alan Stacey was deputy, he was the man who you set your standards by. He had a wonderful effect on me - I was working underground in a space of 2ft by a yard and he would finish off my shift because I was a weakling of a grammar school boy and not inspiring.”

An accident changed things. “A piece of mine fell on me and when I came out I was ready for anything. Much to my father’s chagrin, I decided to become a painter.

“With the experience down the pit, I realised you needed a certain amount of money to survive and because I was on my own it was fun. I could live on very little, with no fear of failure. If you fall on your face in this game, it doesn’t hurt. You can always get back next week.”

Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.

Painting was light years away from the pit. Literally. “When you’re working underground there’s no light except the one on your head. At 2pm you got sprung out into the middle of the Earl of Wentworth’s estate and everything seemed a beautiful green and purple for 15 seconds. Armed with this revolutionary information, I started painting.

“I did ships because in Sheffield you are 90 miles from the sea and I didn’t think anyone would know about them, so I would be Sheffield’s greatest maritime painter.

“It was a huge flop! Sheffield is the biggest contributor to the RNLI, people have a love affair with the seaside so my work was a failure.

“I started painting buildings and they did sell. I was approached by the Register Of Naive Artists and given my first exhibition. The first critique was by Marina Vasey in The Guardian. ‘They say he’s the new Lowry. I disagree. His work has the monotony of a rock ‘n’ roll drumbeat’.

Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.

“I was distraught. The gallery owner told me ‘You’ve got to get used to this sonny, you are going to get a lot of it’. I couldn’t get away with my art in London so I went back to Sheffield because they were a damn sight more kind.

“What I wanted to paint was what my eyes had seen and I was too thick to appreciate at the time, I missed it.

“I developed a style and an attitude and the first thing was to get rid of perspective. I had been anchored down by that, so the horizon had to go.

“I needed a character and there was no room for a face. The people at the bottom of the picture are the same size as those at the top. Nobody else was doing that.”

Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.

He was influenced by a French photographer called Latigue who looked down when shooting pictures. “If you do that there’s no room for the horizon.”

Joe is currently working on a canvas which will celebrate Attercliffe and the Olympic Legacy Park. It will tour Olympic venues after its stint in Sheffield.

The work will be 50 inches by 60 and is taking shape on his canal boat. You can see the Adelphi nightclubs, the workers and the terraced houses. “It is a celebration of the old and the new. It is about Attercliffe, which is the star of the show.”

He’s referring to the way the area is being reinvented from its industrial past to the peaceful and green scene it is now.

Not quite as big as Sheffield Through The Ages which sits in Weston Park Museum and took eight years to complete. A labour of love, but not a money spinner at that rate of progress. Still, father-of-five Joe always found a way. “I have in my life told spectacular lies to Barclays Bank but they have forgiven me because I am still with them.”

So how does he sum up his art? “If you think of the song ‘My old man said follow the van’ you get the flavour of where I’m coming from. It is loving life.

Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.

“You are three failures away from the street which gives life a certain tension and once you have that you have a narrative, stories of failure and success, ideal for theatre. Attack work as if you are putting on a play.”

Themes and people keep coming back in his work. Why? “I’m a village boy, a Pitsmoor boy, so you will keep seeing people coming back in my work, again and again.”

He wants to work at least until he’s 90. “I have ideas that will take me through the next seven years,” Joe says. His favourite work is called Brigg Fair, the story of two lovers who run away from competing families. A picture which tells stories. I ask him which painting got the best price and he chooses one from 20 years ago called Stannington. It features a cricket match, a pub and his daughter’s wedding. It went for £2,500 but Joe’s works these days fetch around £20,000.

So what does he think about the Lowry connection? “It is a great pleasure to be compared to him. He was a product of his age as indeed am I but my figures are around 11 or 12 stone because I was brought up with the Welfare State. His people were up against it, they look depressed.”

His artistic break came from Cyril Caplin, Joe’s first agent/promoter. Cyril made it possible for Joe to paint full time by making him an offer in the late 1960s - £35 a week for two years. Joe accepted and turned out between 70 and 80 paintings in those two years.

"It was a proper week’s wage. I came running home to tell my wife Audrey and asked what we should do. She said go to Whitby for a week. Everything in the moment for her.”

It was Audrey’s death which took him to a boat as he no longer needed a house and suddenly had money from the sale of their family home in Nether Edge.

“I’d never had so much money. I sold the house for six figures and there was a certain arrogance when I walked down to Victoria Quays and saw this pretty little boat and met a lad who was having sell it. I just said ‘I’ll have it’.”

It was 2002, the boat was called Sheba and although he liked it, it was too small. Joe then bought Dragon Rose. “It was an absolutely ruinous empty shell, a mucky old boat just like the fella who owned it. It got to the point where the hull had rotted and was paper thin so I bought Warren Castle.”

He’s had the latest model a year. He sleeps, cooks and works here, with a cosy coal fire for company. “It is a home and a studio.”

We talk about his days at Marlcliffe School, Middlewood. “I was desperately worried when I didn’t do well with the girls. I was 15 and some were spectacularly beautiful. At the age of 80, they still are.”

He’s referring to a school reunion which he clearly enjoyed and Joe maintains a pupil connection after being approached by city schools to supply works for children to paint.

Joe’s team came up with a digital technique which removed the colour from existing works and sent out prints of the outlines. They could inspire artists of the future.

“This game is 90% commerce, 9% art and 1% ego. This sort of work feeds the ego.”

He got his Walk Of Fame star in 2008. “Every time I’m in town, I walk over it. I make sure there’s no chewing gum on it. It was a great, great honour because it came from the citizens of Sheffield.”

Joe was also given an honorary degree by the University of Sheffield and is an ambassador for Sheffield Hospitals Charity, which ran the Bears of Sheffield trail.

A recent work called Greasy Vera’s proved Joe is still hugely popular. It was a favourite calling place for night owls in the 1970s. “I’ve never had so much interest,” says Joe. “It was one of the fastest selling prints I had - the original sold in five minutes.”

Other successes include an exhibition in November 2019 at Weston Park Museum called Life In The Big Village. It attracted more than 50,000 visitors in eight days and his work now sells to all continents.

Not bad for a man who earns a living on bits of coloured rag.

Have a look at them on Joe’s website at https://joescarboroughart.co.uk/

Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.
Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.
Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.
Artist Joe Scarborough in Sheffield Canal Basin.
Artist Joe Scarborough in Sheffield Canal Basin.
Tools of the trade for artist Joe Scarborough
Artist Joe Scarborough working on his latest projects on his boat in Sheffield Canal Basin.
Artist Joe Scarborough in Sheffield Canal Basin.