Joe Scarborough interview: ‘Life as a painter is 90 per cent commerce, nine per cent art and one per cent ego’

"We're cataloguing," says the Sheffield artist Joe Scarborough, explaining why he is trying to track down all of his original paintings.

"The thing is, I'm 80, I've been doing it for 51 years now, so I think it's time to find out exactly what I did do. There was a time when - I hate to say this phrase, but I have to use it - I was knocking them off for a fiver apiece, never thinking of course it would get to this."

The veteran Sheffield artist Joe Scarborough. Picture: Scott Merrylees

The veteran Sheffield artist Joe Scarborough. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Joe is referring to the esteemed position in which he finds himself today. His pictures - energetic, richly-illustrated creations, most of them packed with details of local life - now sell for thousands of pounds, and his work has earned him a star on the 'walk of fame' outside the Town Hall, as well as an honorary degree from Sheffield University.

It's not a bad return, he thinks, for staying the course all these years.

"It is a leap of faith - 'I'm going to be a painter'. You actually live for the first few years on great expectations, and inflated ego, which is absolutely essential. This game is 90 per cent commerce, nine per cent art, one per cent ego. And with respect, if you haven't got that one per cent it's bloody hard work, it really is. You have your fingers crossed until the bank manager one day will tell you your account has gone into the black."

He demonstrates sighing with relief.

"People then begin to take you seriously, and your relatives think 'Fancy that'. While you've used your ego to keep the world at bay, now you use it as a tool. You start doing talks. I've spent some splendid evenings with Women's Institutes. They're all charming - and they all have cake."

We've met at the Mosborough home of entrepreneur Stephen Eyre, Joe's patron. The businessman has just helped Joe to launch a new website and online shop, and the artist has signed a deal with Castle Galleries to promote his work. Stephen is also assisting him with a new authentication service - owners of paintings will receive a certificate and a valuation, and will be offered the chance to sell their paintings back to the artist or make prints.

Joe, of course, moved onto a narrowboat on Victoria Quays following the death of his wife, Audrey, in 2002. He's a hugely engaging character, and can spin an excellent yarn - qualities that came in handy in his early days selling paintings at Norfolk Market Hall, where he listened to stallholders' patter and cleverly adapted it.

"If someone was looking at one I'd take it and say 'There you are, duck. You see him over there? He's having an affair with her, down there.' I just invented it. 'She was in a road accident and you might not believe it, but her left leg is false.' And it's 'How much is it?' Sold."

Artists, he argues, are entertainers first and foremost.

"I take a lot of lessons from the film industry, directors like John Huston who had a cast of characters like John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ward Bond. It's like a little repertory theatre. I like that, because repertory is local. When sometimes I've done a stage - and I love doing theatre pictures - the carpet has always got a dint in it. Because it will have been bought from a second hand shop round the corner. And what are they doing? Ibsen. A bit of Chekhov. But the carpet still has a dint in it. And that makes it human. I like the teeny-weeny idiosyncrasies."

He believes he has put his name to as many as 1,000 paintings over the decades. One of his best, the monumental nine-metre long panorama Sheffield Through The Ages, hangs in Weston Park Museum and encapsulates his style perfectly. Designed as a visual walk through the city through time, starting in 1940, it includes workers rolling and hammering steel at Samuel Osborn’s, Pullen’s Fairground, protest marches, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United football clubs and the Madina Mosque. There's something going on in every part of the picture - and this, he admits, is his secret.

When he starts a painting, he draws a cross over the canvas and doesn't put anything in the middle.

"The most important thing is slightly offstage, downstage, but never centre stage. The eye is brilliant, it will take you through a door 50, 60, 70 times a day and you won't hit your shoulders because it's computed it already. If you have a person in the centre of a picture it will lock there, it won't move away. Your idea is to tell a story so you irritate the eye. It has to work. All I need is 15 seconds and I've got you. If I haven't got you in 15 seconds I've lost, burn the damn thing. They are the rules of the game."

Most of Joe's works feature small figures of faceless people - "If my actor is four inches tall there's not really much room for a face," he reasons - who crop up repeatedly, recognisable by their outfits.

"They wear a certain uniform. Certain ladies wear certain two-pieces and so on. Women in the light trades, you'd set them in a blue overall, white turban. Men always with a snap bag, and a raincoat, or an old ex-Army greatcoat with the squadron patch on the side. That dictates this man has done war service. Men have a flat cap on and only women have hair."

A painting, he says, has another job to fulfil. "There has to be time in it. You put people either walking to, or from, work. Which means it's either eight o'clock in the morning, or five o'clock in the afternoon. The sky has to reflect that, and the direction of movement. Coming and going."

This all harks back to Joe's life before painting. Born in Pitsmoor, he left school with three O-levels and went to work in the laboratory at Batchelor's peas, on a weekly wage of £2 and 14 shillings.

"Women outnumbered men 33 to one. I thought it was paradise. I just walked around in this white coat."

But he soon had cause to seek more cash.

"Somebody invents rock 'n' roll. My loins were on fire. I started courting and 14 shillings is not a lot of money to spend on your flirtations."

Miners, he had learned, earned £30 a week. "I organised a row with my father, which was pretty easy to do, and left the home in high dudgeon. I went to work down Thorpe Hesley pit and it was the making of me. I was a spoiled brat, I really was."

Joe was an only child, and his mother died of a brain tumour when he was eight. "You're passed around family for the six-week holidays and things like that. It's all: 'Aah, our Fred's lad, Joe'. I milked it as much as I could. When I got down the pit that all altered in the first hour. It was good. After my first year I was loving it. I did what's commonly known in the trade as 'all three' - days, afternoons and nights. I hated afternoons. I was young, I could put up with nights. I could keep awake for 24 hours virtually on nights."

He left after a piece of rock fell on him one night, causing an injury that needed 27 stitches. He had already been dabbling in painting, and had an artistic streak as a child, scribbling on the back of reports his steelworker father brought home from work, but upon giving up mining decided to follow his passion.

"I think I was disillusioned with the regularity of work. I did a job packing ice skates in Woodseats, then I met Audrey and we started married life. I made a decision, and she backed me, that I was going to go painting full-time. The major works I'd do in those days were 20x24 - which would fit any council house chimney breast. I'd got a potential 17,000 sale straight away."

This plan didn't quite work out, however, and the market hall beckoned. But Joe's outlook brightened when he was spotted by a 'fairy godmother' figure, Cyril Caplin, who offered to pay him to paint at a rate of £35 a week for two years.

Caplin even arranged a Scarborough show in London at the Portal Gallery, which was reviewed - not entirely favourably - in The Guardian.

What has kept him returning to the easel for so long?

"To a certain extent, habit," he says. "It is about earning a living. Your lifestyle changes, you move up to Nether Edge. My agent said 'You can't sell paintings for £2,000 living in a slum property'. Those sorts of things kick in."

He is, he says, 'a big believer in work'. "Not just for the rewards it brings. It's the old adage of 'The devil makes work for idle hands'. You're painting when you're not painting. When you're listening to the wireless, you're painting. Work is the religion of the North, you can forget other things."

The works Joe is most proud of are two paintings - The Last Wedding on the Isle of St Kilda, and Walk to the Paradise Garden, based on the music by Delius. And he's a fan of Pete McKee, another city artist who has drawn inspiration from his surroundings.

"He's an estate lad, he portrays the estates. He's very good. We need a film of Pete McKee, a 10 minute film for Doc/Fest. He hasn't started."

Joe has his own feelings about Sheffield. "Like it or lump it, it is my native village. Sheffield is tiptoeing into the 21st century as opposed to boldly striding."

Today he has dystonia - a movement disorder - in his hand which has affected his writing but not his painting, as he wraps his brush in masking tape making it stick to his fingers. He reached retirement age 15 years ago, but doesn't ever intend to stop.

"I have this great idea in that when I'm halfway through a painting, I shall fall off my chair. Get that one. That'll be worth a bob or two."

He has a particular outstanding ambition, though - to appear on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

"I have my eight records in store," he says longingly. "It's a public OBE, anyone who gets on that."

Email hello@joescarboroughart.co.uk or visit www.joescarboroughart.co.uk for further details.