Top 3: Artworks

Our picks span from a 19th century portrait of "three ugly women" to contemporary graphical stitch work.

Apparently there are more artists per square mile in Sheffield than in any city outside of London. Sheffield’s visual arts are now desperately underfunded and the city’s artists face an acute uphill struggle, but they continue to make waves internationally and do great things for the cultural fabric of the city. Here are our top 3 artworks – by no means definitive – but sturdy markers of enduring creative spirit keeping Sheffield’s artists and artworks blossoming!

The Misses Vickers (1884), John Singer Sargent

Sheffield has an incredible visual arts collection thanks to two key benefactors: John Ruskin, who in the 19th Century compiled it for the creative and educational good of workers in the city (the Ruskin Collection is now housed at Millennium Gallery), and J.G. Graves, who cared about the city’s future common wealth and donated artworks, buildings and parks. 

Donated artworks in their hundreds are now cared for by Museums Sheffield, including pieces by Picasso, JMW Turner, and American painter John Singer Sargent – the artist behind The Misses Vickers, a group portrait of three sisters in Bolsover Hill. Funnily enough it was voted worst picture of 1886 at the Royal Academy, and Sargent himself said, "I am to paint several portraits in the country and three ugly women at Sheffield, dingy hole." 

Ironically, it turned out to be one of his best and one of Sheffield’s most popular paintings: a modern depiction of three modern, pretty Sheffield women – a cinematic, tense, and chiaroscuro (both light and melancholic) masterpiece. From the broad dismissal of an avant-garde work and the misjudgement of an industrial city, we can take The Misses Vickers as a shining example of beauty fizzing beneath the surface.

Sheffield’s extensive Graves Collection is on rotated display – The Misses Vickers will hopefully be shown again soon.

Election Protest, Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, 2011 (2012), Roanna Wells

On to a work of precise craftsmanship and spatial sensitivity. Roanna Wells is an artist working meticulously in what she calls "graphical stitch", producing abstracted representations of crowd formations for her series Interpersonal Spatial Arrangements. 

From her S1 Artspace studio, in 2013 Roanna produced a new work commissioned by Jerwood Makers Open. Having taken a helicopter ride over the largest religious gathering on earth, Mauni Amavasya, India, she interpreted the spontaneous patterns and formations of bathing crowds as captured in her own satellite images. 

Her earlier depiction of the 2011 Election Protest in Moscow offers a beautiful teaser: tiny hand embroidered stitches on wool, a mesmerising peppering of individuals gathered in organised chaos, seemingly still moving across the fabric like tiny ants, yet absolutely frozen in time. 

Daring to meddle with the traditional boundaries of textiles and contemporary drawing, Wells is a promising sign of Sheffield’s upcoming crop of artists, who are beavering away in their studios, pulling in the sights, sounds and admiration of the world outside.

You'll Thank Me One Day (2009), Kid Acne

Turn a corner in the city or "accidentally" veer off track, and you might easily find yourself loomed over by a huge painted phrase, like "You Couldn't Make It Up", "You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone", or "Everyone's A Winner". Coming across one is like being winked at by a whole wall.

Internationally renowned Sheffield based artist, Kid Acne's slogan graffiti has a tendency to appear on the walls of spaces in flux – buildings on the brink of demolition, or awaiting redevelopment. He celebrates these adjustments with the people who live and work here – engaging in the conversation about what hopes and dreams they have for their city.

For this list I'll choose "You'll Thank Me One Day", which spans the wall of the Yorkshire Artspace carpark. I see it a sympathetic nod to unrecognised creativity, and a reminder to nurture people at their roots – long before they grow and prove you wrong.

Above image: John Singer Sargent, The Misses Vickers, 1884, courtesy of Museums Sheffield. View the slideshow to see the other two artworks.

Written by Jane Faram; May 29, 2013