Sheffield artists in wood created beautiful everyday objects

Sheffield certainly is rightfully proud of its cutlers. But has anybody given a second thought to the artists in wood who turned and carved the bread knife handles to go with, or even the breadboards to match up with the knives?

Monday, 28th October 2019, 12:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 30th October 2019, 12:04 pm
Pete Elshaw working on the circular saw in the mill at Bramhall's on Mary Street in 1981 with Billy Moynihan holding the next piece of wood ready to be sawn, and blanks stacked up, ready for turning and carving into breadboards and butter dishes

Sheffield was breadboard Mecca, where Little Mesters worked tirelessly in cramped conditions to produce attractive but affordable items which they sold to almost every kitchen in the land.

Sheffield breadboards took off with a hard-up London chair-maker called William Wing, who was lucky enough to marry a steady Yorkshire lass and appeared in Sheffield in 1841. They started in a two-up-two-down with 11 others, probably their staff with their families.

Wing was the first in Sheffield to turn plain wooden chopping boards into something decorative for bread, by adding carvings of wheat and foodie mottos round the border. The granddaddy - we think - was his first Sheffield board, a staggeringly beautiful and masterful creation,dripping with flowers, fruits and cornucopias in the Renaissance style. This board has been handed down through the Wing descendants, is still in Sheffield and is much cherished.

The Granddaddy of Sheffield breadboards, by William and George Wing, 1840s, sycamore, 16in

It’s possible breadboards came about as a result of the Corn Laws (1815-46), which imposed tariffs on foreign wheat. British wheat producers drove up prices, making bread unaffordable for all except the rich. Thus bread suddenly became a status symbol. Some enterprising carver must have suggested a beautifully-carved platter to present his client’s precious loaf, not forgetting a specially-designed knife to go with it.

From the 1840s, we know London carvers were already making many customised boards for the upper crust, at 1-4 guineas a pop. But with the repeal of the Corn Laws, the country was flooded with cheap bread. Wing saw an opportunity to reach everyone by making boards for all pockets.

His secret was to keep a generous amount of decoration and offer a nice range, but make the carving simpler and shallower.

The whole family came on board, including his firstborn, George. By the 1860s they had an outlet in London and were the country's foremost ‘bread-platter makers’. The firm, renamed George Wing, worked with cutlers to make their own range of bread knives and forks, some boxed beautifully as wedding gifts.

The Antique Breadboard Museum in London

George made enough dough to upsize to leafy 7 Palmerston Road, in the south-west of the city, which is still standing. Wing’s dynasty fizzled in 1920 and the firm was bought by the Bramhall Brothers, Aquila and Fred, who had worked with Wing and other breadboard makers.

Bramhall inherited all the Wing carvers, exhibition pieces and documents, and, while going more commercial, kept much of the house style. He outlived a half dozen competitors, continuing production until 1982.

The family have kept precious pieces and documents from the archive and kindly shared patterns, photos and memories. Under Mr Whewell’s management it kept producing breadboards till 2002, when it moved into garden furniture, rebranding itself Bramhall1840.

My mother, Rosslyn Neave, was an antique dealer with an eye for unappreciated workmanship, and she saw an opportunity in unwanted round breadboards in the early 1980s. Rosslyn started researching them after being bitten by the collecting bug. She visited Bramhall numerous times.

The Antique Breadboard Museum in London

In the Sheffield Local Studies Library she found the Breadboard Bible: the 1886 George Wing catalogue: and promptly had a nose bleed in her excitement!

Maggie Tyson at the Local Studies Library is getting the whole catalogue digitised and available for purchase in the next months from sheffield. printstoreonline.com.

Regrettably, Rosslyn never located the descendants of Wing or any family photographs. If you have any Sheffield Wing connections, please do get in touch!

There’s an Antique Breadboard Museum! Opened 18 months ago in Putney, London, you can now view and handle Rosslyn’s extraordinary collection in her home.

Beautiful, ornate wooden bread knife handles

Part of the collection is coming to Kelham Island Industrial Museum. I am speaking on November 7 at 2.30pm with Nick Duggan of the Hawley Collection. Register free at eventbrite.co.uk.