I was born on June 4th, in a terrace house on a steep hill on the south bank of the River Don as it flowed through a northern outer suburb of the city of Sheffield. It was the rented house of my mother’s parents, a solid two-up and two-down, with appendages of attic, cellar, outside lavatory and midden. My father worked on a lathe in a machine shop in the east-end of the city, making first sheep-shears and then piston-rings for engines of warships, a job he was to do all his working life until he retired at 70.
From there, my parents moved to a house on the eastern slope of the Rivelin Valley, another two-up and two-down; it was a curious, cliff-hanging house, with fifteen steps to the front door, and at the back, another twelve up to a tiny garden. Down in the valley was the confluence of the rivers Loxley and Rivelin, before their waters, too, joined the Don. This was a fascinating place. I grew up alongside rivers and now live within sight of one. They are important to me. On the banks of these two rivers, industry was ‘light’ - cutlery in its rough stages, grinding and forging. To me, as a child, industry was just life, interesting and colourful. In our neighbourhood there were grinding shops, water-wheels, mill-dams, sluices, … but I knew nothing of the occupational diseases of the grinders who worked in those minor Hades.
I began school at the age of six, a year later than most. Of staff and lessons during my four years in the ‘infants’, there are no memories except being reprimanded for clattering into assembly in my clogs. It was around this time that I began the habit of walking, exploring, mostly by myself.
The after-war prosperity was not to last. I had by this time a younger sister and brother, my father went on ‘short-time’, so mother took in lodgers. At the age of twelve I went to Marlcliffe Road Intermediate School, having failed to get a grammar school place. This new type of school catered for borderline candidates who were to be guinea pigs for a 4 year matriculation. My parents allowed me to stay on at school to take this which, considering how little money they had coming in, was a considerable gesture.
With a good-grade matric under my belt, in November life began in earnest. Daniel Doncaster and Sons Ltd. was a steelworks on an island in the Don as it flowed to the centre of Sheffield. A four ton lump of steel was heated and knocked about by huge, steam-driven hammers until it became something of use, such as a ship’s engine crankshaft. The furnaces continually breathed smoke and fire. There was dirt everywhere, a mixture of ashes and steel dust. In the office thick dust lay on all the desks, and when the 7 ton hammer crashed down about 50 yards away, it jumped high from the papers. Everything jumped. I began as an office boy, at everyone’s beck and call. In the same year I started my long association with evening classes and the frequenting of the public libraries. So for five years life was divided between work as a clerk, night school for engineering, and walking at weekends. Gradually, the drawings in the margins of my evening school books exceeded the engineering notes in quantity and time spent on them. Though not unduly gifted, drawing became very important to me. I read avidly, started to write a little, and in those early days, to write and draw at all seemed very daring. Films, too, began to take a life-long hold upon me, and I haunted the local cinema.
The steady realisation that I could not spend the rest of my working days in the steel works, became a right-angled turn in my progress when I enrolled as an evening student at the College of Art. A fortnight’s holiday in London, with a taste of architecture, and a society not crushed by the ‘slump’, helped to make up my mind.
Mr Charles was given a month’s notice. At twenty two, my immediate plan was to find out how the world went round. It was a period of accelerated understanding. I signed on at the ‘dole’ as a journalist, and there seemed little chance of getting a job in that line of work - which was my aim.
It was a year of very economical living, as there was only 2/6d a week left after paying my mother. The days were spent walking in the city, reading in the Central Library, and talking with the University students in Weston Park. Five nights a week I went to the Art School and drew from life.
Having been offered a place there, with remission of fees for a year, my parents agreed to keep me for that time. Good fortune led me to Ralph Wallace, who was to become a lasting friend, and Eric Jones the Welsh artist/lecturer who was, ideologically, the most important influence in my life. His standards as a draughtsman were very high, and I considered myself fortunate to know him. Such was his influence that drawing became an essential activity, something to be done every day. Half way through the year I had decided to be an artist, yet how one became an artist, I had no idea, but I would learn to draw if it took me the rest of my days.
The Royal College accepted me as a student if the necessary £200 could be raised and that, of course, was impossible. But I made a long-term plan … to work to earn money, and by saving money buy time to draw and paint. For the next fifteen years I was, at various times, clerk, shop assistant, architect’s assistant, commercial artist, tutor at a correspondence college (Bennett’s), mural painter and general dogsbody. And my education continued in the reference library with the Fauves, Cubists, Vorticists, and my philosophic mentor, Wyndham Lewis.
So it was back to the steelworks. The eight mile journey to and from Samuel Fox’s was very enjoyable, as the bus trundled alongside the river much of the way. I developed a sense of the countryside so acute that I could almost hear the humps and hummocks in the fields and woods breathe. It was a time when nature became all but human. Perhaps it was the reaction to the darkness, noise and dirt of the buildings in which my days were spent. Painting began in earnest, on a home-made easel, right from scratch, using areas of the primaries to make a pattern of shapes relating to some simple objects.
When conscripted for the armed forces, I was judged unfit to stand the rigours of life in the services, having had deformed feet from birth. So I was sent to Andrews Toledo as a filing clerk, and went fire-watching at nights, i.e. sleeping at a factory, armed with stirrup pumps and sand to put out fires started by incendiaries. Another army reject in the office was Stanley Jackson, poet and painter. Together we pursued the nurturing of the spirit, and made plans for the future.
The ending of the war was like the lifting of a dark curtain. Stanley, Ralph Wallace and myself rented a room and a brush cupboard over a sweet-shop where the Crucible now stands. We painted it up and it became the Norfolk Street Gallery of Modern Art. We exhibited our own work and good reproductions of paintings done by Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard during the Occupation. These prints were flown in from France by our B.O.A.C. pilot friend William, who had been a pre-war fellow clerk. We also exhibited in Sheffield’s pubs, and Tennants the brewers were our first patrons. “Modern Art in an inn puzzles the customers”, claimed the local press, and we often sat with our half pints, listening to the interesting comments.
Nothing sold at any of the exhibitions, and we were not surprised when our work was turned down as ‘unsuitable’ at the Graves Gallery.
I married Joyce Marjorie Helliwell who had also been a Bennett College tutor seven years earlier. We lived in a bed-sitter in my parents’ house during the week, and in a caravan at Stoney Middleton in Derbyshire at weekends.
We went to Paris for ten days and saw our first real Cézannes, Gauguins, Toulouse Lautrecs, the superb workmanship of Degas, the great Renoirs; a magnificent extension to our lives.
The Norfolk Street gallery was not a financial success and we failed to attract the public. Reluctantly, it meant a return to the steelworks, into a dirty, noisy building full of grinding wheels and machines that made coil springs. From the first day I had skin trouble and sinus afflictions. The writing on the wall was very plain to see. It was time to go and not come back.
Joyce got a teaching job in Essex. We fled, not a moment too soon, from the environment into which I was born, that made me, and almost broke me. We lived at first in a caravan at Burnham-on-Crouch, and then in a rented bungalow in Chelmsford, and were very strategically placed for London, the seaside and cycling the country lanes.
I became a draughtsman, responsible for the plans and drawings of the first Essex County Plan, and began 26 years in local government. During the next seven years, I painted half a dozen pictures and did a hundred or so drawings, mostly pen drawings on the themes ‘Pavements and People’ and then ‘Sea and Sand’. I came very near to losing the thread, yet looking back, the continuity and development were there.
Lucy Annabel was born. The next two years were very pleasant, but my job in the planning office was running down. I did not know a single artist in the south, nor had I been able to get one exhibition.
My father-in-law had for some years been trying to sell a house in Ilkley but, because of its very dilapidated state, nobody wanted it. We decided to buy this house and keep our fingers crossed as regards employment.
May 2nd - Our few pieces of furniture and ‘many effects’ were loaded into a Pickford’s van, which we followed up the A1 to Ilkley and ‘Glan-y-Don’, a great rambling, stone house in a magnificent setting on the bank of the River Wharfe. I found a job in the Leeds City Planning Department, but there was nothing to do, so after some months, I became a surveyor’s assistant in the Ilkley U.D.C. offices, making maps, plans and drawings connected with improvements to the town and its environs.
Jonathan Stephen was born. My painting was done at weekends and, having a studio, the paintings became larger, usually figures in a landscape. I had rapidly developed towards abstraction, and joined the Ilkley Art Club where there were like-minded painters.
Ilkley’s Art Gallery and Museum was opened in the Manor House, and at first, my help with exhibitions was requested, (whilst still working for the surveyor), then I became the administrator and finally …
I was now a curator. The job took me up and down Yorkshire seeking out talent in painting, sculpture and ceramics, with all of £200 a year to spend on exhibitions. Teaching an evening life-class at Skipton extended my experience in many ways.
By now, I had exhibited about fifty artists at the Manor House, and had ranged as far afield as York and Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and Skipton. It was suggested to the Council Amenities Committee that there be an exhibition of my own work. So in July 1965 my first ever one-man show was mounted. I was 53, and had been drawing and painting for thirty years. The Guardian critic reviewed my work in a favourable light, and this gave me confidence.
From 1965-72 I exhibited as widely as possible, (mostly in libraries and further education centres), became a member of the Leeds Fine Arts Club, had a wrestling picture hung next to a William Roberts at the Harrogate Festival, attended the Museums’ Conferences and helped to plan the Ilkley Literature Festival. Scarborough, canals, wrestling and portraits were the painting themes of the 60’s and early 70’s.
There was a Retrospective Exhibition at the Sheffield Polytechnic Gallery. My family still lived in Sheffield, and it was a great pleasure to see my mother’s pleasure in looking at the paintings.
Local government reshaped itself. The Manor House became an outstation of Cartwright Hall, Bradford, and they offered me the job of Exhibitions Officer for all the galleries in the new Metropolitan District. This was a great surprise when I realised the implications. I was a senior bureaucrat! It was hard work.
Retirement came with my 65th birthday, and the summer was spent framing pictures for a retrospective at Cartwright Hall in September. The gallery bought two oils and a drawing.