The engravings are arguably the most powerful works in the show, carrying an intensity and exquisite detail. Curator Edward Yardley has paired Durham, made in 1935, with Lincoln, from 1936. Both are views across the city with their respective cathedrals towering in the distance. They combine two printing techniques – the airiness of drypoint with the darker, denser marks of engraving – to create dramatic pictorial space. These are outstanding, atmospheric works, revelling in the glory of urban and ecclesiastical architecture.
The early print work leads into a series of watercolours, given punch by dark outlines, a stronger drawing element than we might usually expect. Steel’s control of this fickle medium and the subtlety and vitality of colouring are remarkable. We then see a move to more commercial considerations and the work takes on an increasingly illustrative feel and, as spectators, we are asked to make a shift in our criteria for judgment. Display cases house a fascinating variety of items bearing Steel’s work, reminding us how often we see art without really noticing.
One final piece to note is Slioch, Loch Maree, a watercolour from 1960. Lighter and less illustrative than its predecessors, it seems to represent Steel’s latent desire to break free of the shackles of commissions and reconnect with the sheer pleasure of painting.
The exhibition is thoughtfully staged. The artwork is illuminated by the interpretive material, and nostalgic Sheffielders will delight in the scenes of the Steel City dotted throughout – as well as taking pride in the great breadth of Steel’s artistic accomplishments.