Clean sweep as Anthony shows his creative metal

Artist Anthony Bennett with Brian Alcock with the sculpture of him at Sheffield's Millennium Galleries
Artist Anthony Bennett with Brian Alcock with the sculpture of him at Sheffield's Millennium Galleries

SCULPTOR Anthony Bennett has found the most unlikely raw material with which to create artworks for his latest project, Swarfhorse, which is being exhibited at eight different locations across the city.

Swarf is the sweepings on the floor of a grinding shop, the tiny fragments of metal and stone thrown off as steel is given an edge on a grindstone. In the past it was taken away for use in industrial hand cleaner – the trade name Swarfega is derived from it – and to fireworks companies for the manufacture of sparklers.

Bennett has used it to commemorate 500 years of grinding in Sheffield and to highlight the plight of a disappearing industry while holding out the possibility of saving traditional skills.

The artist based at Persistence Works in Sheffield was looking at a hand tool in the collection of Ken Hawley at Kelham Island industrial museum and noticed that the handles had been worn away by a workman’s hands. He says it was like seeing the ghost of a ‘little mester’, those self-employed craftsmen who worked in small workshops across the city.

This led him to Brian Alcock, at 70 the last jobbing grinder in Sheffield – a man who can do bespoke work, putting an edge on any tool required by a specialist craftsman such as a leatherworker or on a prototype required by a designer.

Bennett was saddened that with no one inheriting Alcock’s skills they will disappear along with the traditions of hundreds of years of jobbing grinders, men at the very heart of the cutlery industries, More than that he was angered and with his exhibition he is throwing out a challenge to see if there could be a future for a skill that goes back at least to the first recorded mention of a Sheffield cutler in 1297 and probably much earlier but which has received no entrepreneurial attention or public intervention in recent years.

Brian Alcock has collaborated in the making of the 12 art works, two of which (including a sculpted head and hands of Alcock himself) are now on display at the Millennium Gallery and others are at the gallery of Butcher Works, the Shepherd Wheel, Globe Works (possibly the world’s oldest purpose-built cutlery factory), the University of Sheffield, the Town Hall, the Ken Hawley tool collection at Kelham Island and Electric Works on the Sheffield Digital Campus. The idea is to link the most historical sites with the most contemporary technology to honour the phrase “cutting edge”.

In negotiating access to the venues Bennett believes the readiness of so many different bodies to collaborate on something spotlighting a material so specific to the city adds up to a creative response to the cuts in public funding. Anthony Bennett’s work ranges from the representational to the more abstract, is packed with allusions to ancient history and other cultures and belief systems. Although not every exhibit is pure swarf, the way this unexpected material can be moulded into a hard but permeable resource, suggesting toughness and vulnerability, is a key factor in it. It turns out that the grinders themselves would sometimes play at being sculptors for their own amusement as the swarf built up on the squat boards designed to catch it as they worked.

The title is a play on War Horse, but also alludes to the fact that grinders at work sit astride a bench they call their ‘horsin’ There is a powerful narrative element to each piece on show.

Anthony Bennett is known for his sculpted animals, figures and creatures for tableau and dioramas and for working with other fine artists, notably Yinka Shonibare.

Swarfhorse, which also features photographs, a film by Shaun Bloodworth and a sound piece by In The Nursery, continues until March 16.