Sheffield artists created beautiful boards for our daily bread

Sheffield certainly is rightfully proud of its cutlers.

Thursday, 17th October 2019, 12:00 am
Updated Thursday, 17th October 2019, 1:00 pm
The 'granddaddy' of Sheffield breadboards, by William and George Wing, 1840s, sycamore, 16in

But has anybody given a second thought to the artists in wood who turned and carved the bread knife handles to go with, or even the breadboards to match up with the knives?

Sheffield was breadboard Mecca, where Little Mesters worked tirelessly in cramped conditions to produce attractive but affordable items which they sold to almost every kitchen in the land.

Breadboards travelled to the outer reaches of the Empire too. Captain Scott even took one to Antarctica!

Pete Elshaw working on the circular saw in the mill at Bramhall's on Mary Street in 1981 with Billy Moynihan holding the next piece of wood ready to be sawn, and blanks stacked up, ready for turning and carving into breadboards and butter dishes

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How did Sheffield breadboards take off? With a hard-up London chair-maker called William Wing, who was lucky enough to marry a steady Yorkshire lass and appeared in Sheffield in 1841.

They started in a 2-up-2-down with 11 others, probably their staff with their families.

Wing was the first in Sheffield to turn plain wooden chopping boards into something decorative for bread, by adding carvings of wheat and foodie mottos round the border.

The Granddaddy - we think - was his first Sheffield board, a staggeringly beautiful and masterful creation,dripping with flowers, fruits and cornucopias in the Renaissance style.

Breadboard collector Rosslyn Neave, clutching a new find

This board has been handed down through the Wing descendants, is still in Sheffield and is much cherished.

It’s possible breadboards came about as a result of the Corn Laws (1815-46), which imposed tariffs on foreign wheat.

The British wheat producers milked their monopoly status and drove up prices too, making bread unaffordable for all except the rich. Thus bread suddenly became a status symbol.

Some enterprising carver must have suggested a beautifully-carved platter to present his client’s precious loaf, not forgetting a specially-designed knife to go with.

Beautiful, ornate wooden bread knife handles

From the 1840s, we know London carvers were already making many customised boards for the upper crust, at 1-4 guineas a pop.

But with the repeal of the Corn Laws, the country was flooded with cheap bread.

Wing saw an opportunity to reach everyone by making boards for all pockets but it was nonetheless a risk going into breadboards full-time.

His secret was to keep a generous amount of decoration and offer a nice range, but make the carving simpler and shallower.

The Antique Breadboard Museum in London

The whole family came on board, including his first born, George. By the 1860s they had an outlet in London and were the country's foremost ‘bread-platter makers’.

The firm, renamed George Wing, worked with cutlers to make their own range of bread knives and forks, some boxed beautifully as wedding gifts.

George made enough dough to up-size to leafy 7 Palmerston Road, in the south-west of the city, which is still standing today.

Wing’s dynasty fizzled in 1920 and the firm was bought by the Bramhall Brothers, Aquila and Fred, who had worked with Wing and other breadboard makers such as FW Dover.

Bramhall inherited all the Wing carvers, exhibition pieces and documents, and, while going even more commercial, kept much of the house style.

He outlived a half dozen competitors, continuing production until 1982, when it was bought out.

Long Life and Happiness, E II R June 2 1953, inscribed on Bramhall’s coronation board

The family have kept precious pieces and documents from the archive and has kindly shared patterns, photos and memories of their family firm where everyone mucked in.

Under Mr Whewell’s new management it kept producing breadboards till 2002, when it finally moved into garden furniture, rebranding itself Bramhall1840.

My mother, Rosslyn Neave was an antique dealer with an eye for unappreciated workmanship, and she saw an opportunity in unwanted round breadboards in the early 1980s. We were all going oblong, as bread had gone pre-sliced and rectangular, making round boards inconvenient for many families.

Her original intention was to sell them on, and so she did, in the thousands, principally to French and American clients, as she became the go-to dealer. But the boards began to worm their way into her affections and she would keep one aside, ‘to enjoy it for the week’, and then another.

Rosslyn started researching them after being bitten by the collecting bug.

She visited Bramhall numerous times and was welcomed warmly by new and old management

alike.

In the Sheffield Local Studies Library she found the Breadboard Bible, the 1886 George Wing catalogue, and promptly had a nose bleed in her excitement!

Establishing provenance is rare, as only academically-trained sculptors were usually allowed to sign their work.

She persuaded the librarian to make a copy and would come home with a new find wondering ‘Is it a Wing?’, flicking excitedly through the 50 pages of Wing offerings.

Maggie Tyson at the Local Studies Library is getting the whole catalogue digitised and available for purchase in the next months from sheffield.printstoreonline.com.

Regrettably, Rosslyn never located the descendants of Wing or any family photographs. If you have any Sheffield Wing connections, please do get in touch!

There’s a Breadboard Museum! Opened 18 months ago in Putney, London, you can now view and handle Rosslyn’s extraordinary collection, in her home.

It has a whole wall dedicated to Wing and Bramhall and is also a tribute to many unknown crafts people and artists, who made breadboards a quintessentially British piece of kitchen and dining kit.

By appointment, tours cost £60 for a group of four visitors (£15 each) and include a generous

cream tea.

It was Rosslyn’s dream to set up a Breadboard Museum in Sheffield at 7 Palmerston Road. Would interested funders please get in touch!

If you can’t make it to the museum, part of the collection is coming to Kelham Island Industrial Museum in Sheffield. I am speaking on November 7 at 2.30pm with Nick Duggan from the Hawley Collection.

Register free at eventbrite.co.uk (museum entry charges apply).

London museum website: antiquebreadboards.com