Artist Joe Scarborough marks six decades of painting 'the village' that is Sheffield
I am a great day dreamer, declares Joe Scarborough who believes that is why he is never short of ideas for his paintings
“It’s like a chorus line. The spotlight is shining on one person and the next is trying to push in and say, ‘look at me’. When I am working on one idea there is always another that I can’t wait to get on to.”
The showbiz analogy goes to the heart of what the much-loved Sheffield artist, being celebrated in a new exhibition at Weston Park Museum, Joe Scarborough – Life in the Big Village, is all about.
He sees himself as much as an entertainer as an artist. “A lot of my work is theatrical,” he observes. “I am big and brash and musical. It’s how the music hall worked, what Billy Bennett and George Formby were singing about were things the audience recognised. “ Likewise he likes the notion of someone looking at one of his images and saying he knows what he is talking about.
Like Hollywood director John Ford and repertory theatre which used the same actors over and over again, he does that in his paintings. Characters re-appear in different scenes. “You will see them in different pictures and then they will not be seen for years.”
Nearly everyone is in constant movement. “Very few people are standing still,” he says. “Often people are coming or going to work. Work dominates my paintings because I like the era of the 1950s when everyone was in work.”
Joe Scarborough was born in Pitsmoor 81 years ago and was an avid drawer as a boy. An early inspiration were the railway posters of Norman Wilkinson which he came across while trainspotting.
“No one teaches you how to paint but you can learn a lot from advertising,” he says. Adverts feature prominently in his pictures. “Particularly the tinplate adverts which were permanent and you could always tell where you where from those.”
He started to paint when he was 17. “At that age you don’t brag about being an artist especially if you come from Pitsmoor. You’re supposed to be interested in beer and girls, neither of which I was very good at.”
He spent six years working at Thorpe Hesley Colliery and as a miner found his inspiration in the colour and light above ground.
He went on develop the style and content of his paintings, moving from clipper ships, his favoured early subject (the aforementioned Norman Wilkinson was primarily a maritime artist), to the depictions of everyday life seen in his work today.
“You learn about your audience and gradually and naturally a style develops.” He believes that every painting should have a spot that draws in the viewer and holds their attention for 15 seconds. Under his 15-second rule if he can hold the viewer’s initial attention for that space of time they will go on to study the rest of the painting.
It had to be pointed out to him that his took an aerial perspective to his views “it’s like the view of a tennis umpire, I didn’t know I was doing it”.He began to sell paintings but it took a while for him to fulfil his desire to go full-time. “You have to be getting more than you earn in your job and there came a point where it was paying pretty well and I talked with Audrey (his late wife) and she said do it.
Support from a sponsor, Cyril Caplin, proved crucial in enabling this to happen.
“From the start of my career my paintings have been inspired by Sheffield and the people who live here,” says the artist. “I’ve always seen the city as my native village – from the local pubs and parks to places where people work and live.”
Hence the title of the exhibition, Joe Scarborough – Life in the Big Village, which has brought together more than 60 paintings and drawings for the first time in over 25 years.
The artist admits that he got quite emotional when he was saw some of them after all these years.
By 1973 he had his first exhibition and went on to be commissioned to paint many Sheffield landmarks, including the University of Sheffield, the National Emergency Services Museum and the Sheffield Children’s Hospital and have his work displayed in private homes and public galleries across the world.
He recalls how after having an agent in London he was eventually told, “Mr Scarborough, no more smoking chimneys”. “This was 1984, the time of the miner’s strike incidentally, and they said, ‘can you do sport’ so I went to Henley Regatta, Queens, Wimbledon and cricket matches. At Arsenal I got arrested when I was walking around Highbury. One of the directors had to come to the police station to get me out.” On view are several football scenes, including one commissioned for Sheffield FC. “I have done two of Sheffield United but Wednesday have never asked me,” he reflects.To sum up his work, he says: “It’s 90% commercial, 9% art and 1% ego. If you don’t have that it’s not going to work.
.”Whether you like or not there’s a desire to be recognised. The first time it happened to me I was looking in a shop window and there was a couple there and the woman said, that’s Joe Scarborough. When I heard that my breast swelled like a racing pigeon.”
Joe Scarborough – Life in the Big Village continues at Weston Park Museum until November 24.