THERE could scarcely be a better demonstration of what Sheffield will be missing in future, now that Museums Sheffield has been denied a major grant from the Arts Council, than the exhibition now running at the Millennium Gallery.
The Family in British Art brings to the city paintings, photography, film and sculpture from artists of the calibre of Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, Stanley Spencer, David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread.
Spanning more than 400 years of British art, the 65 historic and contemporary works come from national galleries such as Tate, V&A and the National Portrait Gallery alongside private loans and work from the city’s own visual art collection.
“Today, the concept of family means many different things to different people,” says Louisa Briggs, Curator of Visual Art at Museums Sheffield. “This wonderful collection of work illustrates just how radically the British idea of family and the way it’s been represented has changed over the centuries.’
Rather than chronologically, the exhibition is arranged in five themes – Inheritance, Children, Parenting, Couples and Kinship, and Home.
Thus you get some interesting juxtapositions. In the Inheritance section there is Sir Thomas More, His Father, His Household and His Descendants from the National Portrait Gallery and In the House of My Father by Donald Rodney (one of the Blk Art Group on show in the Graves) which presents the ailing artist’s open hand as a sculpture made from sections of his own skin.
Swooping above them are a flock of seagulls. This is Tracey Emin’s In my Family When Someone Dies they are Cremated and their Ashes are Thrown Across the Sea, comprising 11 plaster seagulls suspended from the ceiling and, though it’s hard to see, all bearing the words ‘I Could Really Have Loved You’ in raised textured capitals across their backs and wings.
On to the childhood section where Martin Parr’s 1986 photograph, Two Children Eat Ice-creams on the Seafront, is next to William Hogarth’s A House of Cards from 1730 in the days when children were depicted like miniature adults in their facial features, expressions and clothes.
“Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds were largely responsible for creating a sense of childhood as being an experience to be cherished. There were paintings showing children on their own often in countryside and removed from the adult world,” points out Briggs.
As to Parenthood, “The relationship of parent and child is depicted from the point of view of the adult and in many ways that’s what defines a sense of family,” says the curator pointing to My Parents, painted in 1977 by David Hockney, and pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s 19th-century mother and child study, Devotion.
Couples and Kinship shows not just husband and wife but sibling relationships. Examples here are Stanley Spencer’s The Lovers, with its jumble of limbs, and Vanessa Bell’s portrait of her sister, Virginia Woolf. “It’s very sensitive of the fact that she didn’t like being pictured and so it’s not highly detailed,” observes Briggs.
Finally, Home is where the heart of the family is. In the final section there is the painting by Jack Smith of Mother Bathing Child from 1954, the original kitchen sink painting which helped coin the phrase Kitchen Sink group, which was applied to him and three other realist artists in the Fifties. Smith was born in Sheffield, educated at Nether Edge grammar school and Sheffield College of Art but lived for most of his life in the London area. He died last year aged 82.
Not far away are a lot of other Smiths with Ivy Smith’s The Smith Family Golden Wedding, a composite painting of people not exactly enjoying a family do, and Thomas Struth’s austere photographic study of The Smith Family, Fife, Scotland 1989.
The Family in British Art commissioned photographer Jonathan Turner to produce a new series of images of Sheffield families which range from mother and daughter with cats in a smart living room to a large extended family in their backyard and a group of Afghan refugees.
Also on display will be a specially-designed, interactive ‘family tree’ which will show snapshots of family life sent in by people across South Yorkshire.
“We’re asking visitors to think of their own concept of family and that’s not necessarily a nuclear family any more, the notion of family is changing,” observes Briggs.
The Family in British Art is the final part of the Great British Art Debate, a four-year collaboration between Museums Sheffield and Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service, largely funded by the National Lottery, exploring identity through national and regional art collections.
The Family in British Art at the Millennium Gallery continues until April 29.