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A Magazine for Sheffield

Four Major Views: Stanley Royle and Sheffield’s Art

There is an eeriness about the work of Stanley Royle, whose famed series Four Major Views of Sheffield now hang proudly alongside each other in an exhibition of his work at Graves Gallery. Re-united after a separation spanning over 60 years, the paintings spearhead an exhibition that explores the relationship between mankind and his habitat. The Four Views, commissioned in 1922, emphasise the closeness of pastoral innocence to the smoggy footprint of the city. In Sheffield from the Park, painted in 1923, the city slinks into the distance, shrouded in darkness and pierced by chimneys and spires, the backdrop to the youthful scene of a woman and her ducks. The elevated vantage that Royle chooses gives the industrial city the appearance of a plug hole into which all rural rushes towards. Royle’s technical ability is undoubted. It is said that he would not stop until he found the perfect spot on which to rest his canvas - even painting knee deep in Peak District streams if it meant the correct aspect - and his knack for likeness earned Sheffield from Wincobank Wood a place in the Tate Modern’s exhibition, A Picture of Britain, in 2005. Like any landscape art that falls into the realm of ‘romantic’, it shows the progress of humanity alongside its never-changing environment. The proximity of Sheffield to the countryside has always permitted the rural and the urban and, by extension, its symbolic meanings to be neatly emulsified. Whilst the bleakness of the industrial has traditionally served to frame the vibrancy of human life that operates within its cogs and reels, the machine itself is now a celebrated fixture of Sheffield’s civic identity. Royle liked to cloak Sheffield in a dark dystopian mist, but the mechanical heartbeat of Sheffield has grown ever more poignant in artistic expression, paralleling the general acceptance of Sheffield’s industrial heritage by its civilians. One only needs to glance up at Park Hill or the Arts Tower to recognise the paternalism enshrined in the fortress-like, in-your-face collection of concrete and glass. Brutalism, an architectural style that dominates much of the Sheffield skyline, in many ways embodies the pinnacle of man and his man-made environment, these cold, clean-cut visions of the future forged from a sense of Sheffield bending hard material to its will. Anthony Lowe, realist artist of the 1980s, embodies this confidence in an engineered future in Hole in the Road. In it he represents the ultimate phase of the urban evolution, a topographically accurate depiction of Sheffield defined by a fluidity of line and richness of colour. Hole in the Road illustrates the harmony of man and material, a harmony that at the same time was beginning to take shape in the recording studio. With the steel industry beginning to sink into the murky depths of time, the industrial began to find expression in the murky depths and hollows of the four-four rhythm. A musical arrangement borrowed from Detroit, another declining industrial heartland, the abrasive sounds of the factory and the regularity of its production was symbolically resurrected by the likes of The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire, reaching fruition in the stripped down bleep of Warp Records productions. Where Detroit had the Belleville Three - Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins, largely accredited with birthing techno - Sheffield had its own trio, Warp founders Steve Beckett, Rob Mitchell and Robert Gordon. This was not just a music scene that sought to re-appropriate the mechanised in its sound, but also the vast quantity of suddenly abandoned inner city space, providing the cauldron in which the new ‘industrial’ was forged. The interplay between Sheffield’s industrial past and how its contemporary art attempts to reclaim it is still powerfully at work today. Now, as before, Sheffield’s art portrays the contradictory visions of a mystical future and a distant past. Phlegm’s pieces are a fine case in point, taking the oddities of civilizations past and combining them into scenes that are modern, even prophetic. Take a look around you and you’ll see the eyes of dystopian creatures daubed on the walls of red brick staring unnervingly back at you. Sheffield’s graffiti, its constant drive to give the abandoned and derelict energy, stakes a claim to high art that is difficult to ignore. Be it audio or visual, the art of Sheffield treads the finely balanced corridor between the dark and the light, between mourning of the past and anticipation of the future, between man and machine. It is at the point of collision of these distant concepts that the very best art rests, because the internal conflict that this arouses leads one to question the mechanics of human nature. It is truly beauty and the bleak. The Great Outdoors – Paintings by Stanley Royle runs at Graves Gallery until the end of May )

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