This week, Victorian Giants, a new exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery, opens in Sheffield. The exhibition provides a glimpse into a time described as the last days of wonder through the work of four pioneering Victorian photographers; Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden.
When photography was in its infancy these artists reflected the hopes and dreams of a generation; the starlit eyes of astronomer John Herschel (1792 – 1871) and the studied beauty of actor Ellen Terry (1847 – 1928). These quiet, still images went on to cast this small group as titans in their field.
I remember the infectious ambition that Councillor Peter Horton brought to the city; you can see his contribution in the Lyceum, Kelham Island Museum and Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet.
Inevitably I find myself thinking of Sheffield’s own giants. There are the great innovators in steel production, Henry Bessemer and Harry Brearley. Lesser-known, yet exceptional, artists such as Theophilus Smith who captured the town in the 1860s, and Godfrey Sykes, Master of the School of Art, who, unusually for the time, painted people at work. There are the human rights campaigners like Molly Morris and Edith Whitworth, who ran the Suffrage shop on Chapel Walk and, through Sheffield’s Women’s Social & Political Union, fought for women’s right to vote.
Then there are the giants whose lives aren’t written into the history books; the women and men who built this city, our grandparents and great grandparents, forbearers who inspired who we are and who we will become.
Different things can make us feel like giants - the England team walking out onto the pitch carrying our nation’s hopes of glory; the mothers in labour at the Jessop this morning - giving birth to the next generation; or the men and women hard at work in communal kitchens preparing Yorkshire pudding batter or frying dumplings for the hundreds of people who’ll sit down for dinner at lunch club this week.
Other things can make us feel smaller; the realisation that we haven’t visited an elderly friend for a while; or maybe the house is a tip and there’s too much to do and not enough hours in the day. Feeling big or small has little to do with money or material things, it’s not about our achievements or what others think or say. Feeling like a giant is about how we feel about ourselves.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege to meet many people I’d describe as giants. I remember the infectious ambition that Councillor Peter Horton brought to the city; you can see his contribution in the Lyceum, Kelham Island Museum and Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet. Peter found pleasure in seeing good things happen and needed no more recognition than that.
Last month we said farewell to another giant, Brendan Ingle, a man who inspired and supported generations of young people. I met him in 2005, when he was nominated as a local hero for an exhibition at Weston Park Museum. I was struck by his high expectations of the young people he worked with. Brendan’s drive was contagious and while we can list the people who became world champion boxers on his watch, his enduring legacy is in the lives of the young men that everyone else had written off, helping them learn to respect themselves and see what they were capable of. His ambition was that they would realise and understand their potential, becoming a world champion was never the most important thing.
When I think about what makes Sheffield great I remember how important ambition is. It’s about having a belief in what’s possible and a determination to make life better, like J G Graves who gave £30,000 towards a library and gallery for the people of Sheffield in the middle of the great depression; he knew that people needed creative inspiration for new ideas to flourish and innovation to thrive. And he worked with the city to create our green belt and our parks, playgrounds and civic spaces.
Fast forward to now and we have great culture and heritage, stunning landscape and an international population – we can and should feel good about our city. Yet Sheffield will be defined by the people who shape it and the culture we leave behind. Jude Warrender, environmental campaigner and community activist, describes her work as ‘giving something back and feeling you’re part of something bigger than yourself and trying to move things forward. What I do is what thousands of people do in Sheffield. I think of it as bees in a hive rather than spiders at the centre of a web’.
Becoming world champions is not the most important thing. But creating the conditions for people to channel their talent and ambition, to feel like giants, is vital.