A celebration of one man’s visual love letter to his home city, Sheffield

In March 2014, at a breakfast organised for local business, a colleague asked if I knew about the enormous Joe Scarborough painting that was due to be auctioned in Sheffield later that day.I had seen the painting when Joe was working on it in Ponds Forge and later when it was at the Castle Market, but I had no idea what had become of it in the years since.

Wednesday, 24th July 2019, 08:49 am
Updated Thursday, 22nd August 2019, 09:17 am
Joe Scarborough's Royal Exchange - www.joescarborough.co.uk

Joe’s large scale masterpiece, Sheffield Through The Ages, was about to go under the hammer.

We jumped in the car, made a mad dash for the auction room and after some fraught bidding, Museums Sheffield became the new proud owners of this extraordinary panorama.

I returned to the office with news of our latest acquisition and was met with stunned silence – evidently my eyes were bigger than our gallery. At nine metres wide, this is Joe’s most ambitious work and by far the biggest painting in Sheffield’s collection - we weren’t entirely sure where to put it.

After much deliberation (and with help from the painting’s then caretaker, Deborah Egan and our friends at Sheffield Theatres, CAM Fork Lifts and Hague Plant Limited) we managed to see it safely into its new home at Weston Park Museum; it was a mammoth team effort for a painting of equally mammoth proportions.

Sheffield Through The Ages tells the story of the city and its people from the 1940s onwards.

In true Scarborough tradition, it’s teeming with life and dotted with landmarks, shared memories, place names, newspaper headlines and song lyrics, from ‘Give peace a chance’ and ‘Oh, the times they are a changin’ to ‘Don’t you want me baby?’ It’s a window into times gone by and Joe has put his heart into it; for me it captures the soul of Sheffield.

Five years on and the museum is hosting over 60 works by Joe for a major exhibition spanning his 55 year career. Joe Scarborough – Life in the Big Village is a celebration of one man’s visual love letter to his home city.

Joe tells stories of people and the places they live their lives, from Attercliffe and Pitsmoor to Heeley and Stannington, and everywhere in between.

Many of the places he’s captured have changed beyond recognition, but through Joe’s paintings our link to them remains; they are a collective memory of the experiences we’ve shared and the stories we’ve told.

Joe is a watcher of people and a mine of information – at 81, he’s been around the block a few times and he’s seen it all.

A sunny afternoon spent walking around Pitsmoor, where Joe grew up, and everything he sees tells a tale. On Andover Street, Joe pauses to consider one of the oldest buildings in the area, “It was a chip shop, known to everybody as the White House.

When you come to think about it, the greatest food of the nation was fish and chips; they’d be knocking them out like I don’t know what, people just loving them, loving the smell.

It was a meeting place, because you don’t get them straight-away, sometimes you have to wait and there’s that interchange of information and bloody good gossip!”

Joe’s amazing ear for gossip is the secret ingredient that makes his paintings so special.

The reason he’s able to capture the bustle, banter and whimsy of our lives so brilliantly is that he’s soaking it up all the time:

“Never go downstairs on a bus, go upstairs and listen. You’ve got to keep your ears open.

You will find some fantastic stories. It’s like I say, they’re really all based on Romeo and Juliet, nothing has altered – that’s the beauty of life.

“We live so close together, we love looking at each other and we’re always judging each other, building up your little bit of persona and setting your little boundaries. I take those and I paint them. It’s as simple as that.”

So while we’re caught up getting on with the business of life, Joe is busy capturing us going about it. If you look closely enough at his paintings you might find your nan, your friends, or maybe even yourself. Perhaps he spotted you from the top deck of a number 76 bus and immortalised the moment.

Or maybe he simply recognises us for who we are and what we have in common. That’s the great thing about life in this big village of ours – we all live it together.

Joe Scarborough – Life in the Big Village continues at Weston Park Museum until Sunday 24 November. Entry to the exhibition is free.

See pages 42 and 43 for arts write Ian Soutar’s interview with Joe as the exhibition goes on show.