Tucked away on the third floor of the Central Library, the Graves Gallery feels like a bit of a secret. Admittedly, we quite like it that way. But given that the Graves offers a tour through a few centuries' worth of art history and shows work by the likes of Bridget Riley, Marc Quinn, J.M.W. Turner and Sam Taylor-Wood, it's only right that we share it.
When you reach the top floor – by stairs or by the old lift – take a second to look down the stairwell before you head into the gallery: a cascade of blue and purple falls downwards like an excited flock of birds, in an installation woven by Sheffield-based artist Seiko Kinoshita. Now, go and lose yourself in the Graves's artworks and quiet splendour.
The gallery opened in 1934 largely thanks to donations of both money and art by its namesake, the mail-order pioneer and local philanthropist J.G. Graves. From the entrance its permanent galleries loosely progress in reverse chronological order from the present day to the 16th century – starting with contemporary abstractions and a Damien Hirst (lent to the gallery by Jarvis Cocker), taking in 20th-century portraiture and landscapes by the likes of Gwen John and Vanessa Bell, works of 19th-century symbolism like Edward Burne-Jones's The Hours, a fair few portraits of ruff-wearing aristocrats, and ending with 400-year-old Dutch and Flemish scenes. In 2016 the gallery added to its permanent displays with Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry's 8-metre-long Comfort Blanket, an attempt to capture Britishness in tapestry form.
As well as representing the breadth of the city's fine art collection, the Graves never fails to throw up something interesting in its changing galleries. In recent years, it's hosted exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe photography, Andy Warhol self-portraits, the Blk Art Group's radical vision, and an overview of street photography spanning over 100 years.
After a period of refurbishment and redisplay, the Graves Gallery reopened in September 2021. Its new displays include an exhibition curated by artist Keith Piper, co-founder of the seminal Blk Art Group. It includes Piper’s own work The Seven Rages of Man (1984-2018), which imagines seven ages, or rages, through which the black dispersed population has passed, but also the future to come. Also on display are Precision as a State of Mind, celebrating the work of sculptor Mark Firth, and Pandemic Diary by renowned street artist Phlegm.
Pick up a card from the gift shop on the way out. And while you're in this beautiful building, take the opportunity to browse the library on the ground floor or, if you time it right, to catch a talk, play or even wrestling match in the basement's Library Theatre.
Clearly, we'd be doing you a disservice if we didn't let you in on the secret that is the Graves.
October 2021 update:
No need to book – please arrive early to avoid disappointment. Face coverings are welcomed and encouraged. Read the visitor info.
- Words by
- Kathryn Hall
- Images by
- Nigel Barker