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A Magazine for Sheffield

New exhibition set to transform Sheffield’s view of itself as a ‘City of Rivers’

The free show at Weston Park Museum features over 300 artworks and found objects, exploring how Sheffield’s five rivers have shaped the city geographically, economically and psychologically.


Rachel Heley, who has contributed items from her swim brand Wild Moose to the exhibition, swimming in the River Rivelin.

Rachey Heley.

A new long-running exhibition featuring contributions from dozens of makers, artists and activists across the city is set to revolutionise how we think about Sheffield and its waterways.

'City of Rivers' at Weston Park Museum opens on 24 November and will explore how the Don, the Sheaf and the Porter (among others) have powered both heavy industry and the city's emerging sense of itself.

The show will also spotlight ongoing efforts by activists to restore our rivers, including projects to improve biodiversity and plans to de-culvert long-hidden sections of river and create new riverside trails.

The 300 artworks and objects on display range from paintings, poems and compositions to found objects pulled from the rivers themselves. The exhibition is free and runs until 3 November next year.

Storyteller and songwriter Sean Cooney has composed a new song for the show, telling the story of a dog named Rollo who supposedly saved a baby from the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864.

"Nearly 300 people died that night when Dale Dyke Dam collapsed and water thundered down the Loxley," Cooney explained to Now Then. "But the legend of the baby-saving dog, true or not, was so heart-warming, and was a pleasure to write about."

Geoffrey Guy from the River Stewardship Company said the exhibition was "a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness of the significance of Sheffield's rivers throughout its history, and to help people learn how they can help with river related conservation and habitat improvement efforts."

As part of the RSC's 'Riverlution' project Guy will be giving a talk in January on 'sense of place' in relation to rivers, as well as sessions later in the year to train school children in river stewarding skills.

Wild swimmer Rachel Heley has lent a set of items from her Sheffield-based swim brand Wild Moose for display.

"Swimming in rivers and other bodies of water in and around Sheffield really helps me connect to the city I love in a new way," she told Now Then. "I see things from a new perspective, literally and figuratively, and I emerge from the water feeling alive and invigorated. I have made so many wonderful new connections through my love of swimming in Sheffield."

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The Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust have contributed a range of objects pulled from the city's rivers.

The Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust.

The Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust, who work to restore and improve access to two of Sheffield's most famous but little seen waterways, have contributed a series of paintings by Alison Churchill, as well as objects they’ve found in the Sheaf and Porter.

"One of our activities is to lead underground tours through the culverts under the city", explained Churchill. "Over the years, a number of objects have been retrieved from the bed of the Sheaf and Porter. They range from fossilised bits of fern-like tree stems, through relics of the city's industrial past – crucibles and oyster shells – to the relatively modern BlackBerry phone."

The exhibition also aims to raise the profile of the so-called Rivelin Valley artists – a now largely forgotten group of early 20th century landscape painters who created romanticised snapshots of the then-industrial River Rivelin.

Sheffield broadcaster and naturalist Chris Baines is the grandson of one of the painters, Ben Baines, and has lent five of the best works by the group to the exhibition.

"At the end of the First World War, a group of young Sheffield men gathered together in the Rivelin Valley, and their paintings captured the natural beauty of this old industrial landscape perfectly," Baines told Now Then.

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'Underbank and Fresh Water Mussels' by Jackie Prachek (2019).

Jackie Prachek.

"Together they must have found three of the key ingredients that we now recognise to be so effective in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: companionship, creativity and access to nature."

"Their mission was to capture the unspoiled beauty of Rivelin before it was over-run by the city,” he continued. “A century later the valley remains almost entirely unchanged and their paintings are a unique record of a hugely significant moment in history – for Britain, for Sheffield, and for the men themselves."

Fascinatingly, Baines has discovered that a similar exhibition was put on by the Rivelin Valley artists themselves almost 100 years ago in 1924. The leaflet shows that, similar to the new Weston Park show, the organisers hoped to place “on permanent record” the natural beauty of the city's rivers.

'City of Rivers' will also feature art, poetry and film by Catherine Higham, Ruth Levene, Harriet Tarlo, legendary Sheffield painter Joe Scarborough and composer Benjamin Tassie, who has created a set of instruments that are played by the River Rivelin itself.

"It was very relaxing actually, quite a soothing experience where we didn't want to dominate, Tassie told Now Then. "We played quite quietly and the flow of the river controlled the speed of the instruments. It did feel like a collaboration with the river."

Mill dam and distant mill possibly Corn Mill Ben Baines 1935 watercolour glazed 44 X37 30 X 22

Mill dam and distant mill (possibly Corn Mill), by Ben Baines (1935).

Chris Baines.

The centrepiece will be a topographical metal map of Sheffield, including engraved rivers and silver reservoirs, commissioned from Holly Clifford of Contour Map Collection specially for the show. “It was a very special map to make, because the topography and history of Sheffield is defined by its rivers,” Clifford told Now Then.

“They’re the city’s watery main arteries, initially a source for huge industry, but which now are magical and lush green corridors linking the city to the Peak District. I believe that maps are great holders of our memories, the landscape intertwined with events and emotions that occurred there. I hope that when people look at this map it conjures joy of places and experiences, just like it does for me.”

The map has been created from one single sheet of blackened brass. Using elevation data, Clifford then cut the contour lines of the landscape into the sheet using a laser, with each one representing a 25-metre change in the landscape.

“All the rivers were then hand engraved into the metal and meticulously filled with silver leaf, the reservoirs studded along them cut by hand from sheet silver and riveted in place,” she said. “A true labour of love!”

As well as mapping out the past and present of our city's rivers, the exhibition will also explore how they might change in the future. The River Dôn Project, which is hosted by Opus Independents who also publish Now Then, is looking at innovative new methods that could be used to protect and enhance Sheffield's biggest river.

Sheffield Rivers map in the Loxley River 2

Holly Clifford holding her Sheffield rivers map in the River Loxley.

Holly Clifford.

"The City of Rivers exhibition shows how these rivers have been a constant in an ever-changing landscape," project coordinator Alban Krashi told Now Then. "At the River Dôn Project, we're exploring how as a city we can recognise and safeguard the special status of our rivers through new ecological, social, legal and economic frameworks.

"How can we make sure the interests of our rivers are taken into account during decision-making processes? We're working with partners to hopefully demonstrate what future rights for the River Don might look like."

Access info

Weston Park Museum is wheelchair accessible, and the exhibition is on the ground floor. There are accessible toilets at reception, in the museum corridor and in the picnic space. You can find more information about accessibility at Weston Park Museum.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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