Fine art of fighting back to beat cuts in budget

Leonard Beaumont, Sun Bathers
Leonard Beaumont, Sun Bathers
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When Museums Sheffield lost a huge chunk of funding, people feared for the future. Nick Ahad finds out how they are battling back.

All arts organisations which lost funding in the last few years have wondered how they would survive.

When Museums Sheffield, the organisation which runs Weston Park, Millennium Galleries and the Graves Gallery, suffered a large cut to their funding, one of the questions the organisation faced was about how it was going to continue to stage the hugely impressive exhibitions it has shown over the past few years that has seen an unprecedented run of success.

There was much talk of having to downscale some of the work – this was a museum that staged a John Martin exhibition before it was a sell-out in London. There might also have to be a bit more returning to the vaults and seeing what Museums Sheffield had in its stores to display, rather than bringing in expensive exhibitions from other organisations.

Should the fans of the museum and galleries – and there are many – have worried? As It turns out, perhaps not.

The latest exhibition to open at the city’s Graves Gallery is not only from the museum’s own collection and not only is it an exhibition that celebrates the work of an unsung hero, but it is the work of a Sheffielder no less.

The Power of the Print: Leonard Beaumont Rediscovered does what it says on the tin. Opening last month, the exhibition runs until September and has already received overwhelmingly positive feedback from visitors.

A prolific artist and designer, Beaumont’s work, although collected by the V and A and the British Museum, has not had the recognition that many in his native Sheffield feel he deserves.

Sian Brown, curatorial services manager at Museums Sheffield, says the exhibition is a great opportunity to redress the balance.

“The truth is, Leonard Beaumont isn’t someone most people will have heard of – he doesn’t appear in the art history books and he didn’t have any major exhibitions in his lifetime.

“Here in Sheffield we did hold a retrospective of his work in the early 1980s, but this is the first time that there has been a major solo exhibition of his work.”

Beaumont, born in 1891, donated a number of his works to Sheffield before his death in 1986. Early in his artistic career he showed great promise for two very distinct types of work – linocuts and etchings and he did see some of his work exhibited individually in some London galleries. In his thirties, he moved to London and began to work in design, a career he stayed with for the rest of his life. Creating design work for Sainsbury’s and for the General Post Office, he never pursued his art with the same vigour he had as a young man, which meant his artistic output became sadly neglected.

Now that he is being given an exhibition in Sheffield, is it a redressing of the balance, or is it actually the case that Sheffield is trying to make a case for an artist who perhaps wasn’t recognised for legitimate reasons?

“I totally disagree,” says Brown. “There are lots of examples of artists who are not recognised in their time.

“Beaumont was prolific in his early years, before he made the decision to move towards design and away from fine art and his work still stands up to this day.

“I am sure his work would have been more recognised if he had continued to produce it.”

The Power of the Print: Leonard Beaumont Rediscovered, also reveals the ingenuity of the artist. Interested in creating prints, but not having the money to have them made, he instead designed his own printing press, visited a steelworks in his home city and had the machine made to create the work that hangs in the Graves Gallery this year.

“By exhibiting the two very different styles he worked in, in the same exhibition, you can see the span of his work,” says Brown.

“There are these very bold lino cuts and at the same time he was creating these incredibly intricate etchings. Seeing them next to each other is fascinating – and it gives audiences the opportunity to see work from the collection that we own, that hasn’t been on show since the early 1980s.”

So it isn’t the case that the funding cuts has meant that the staff at the museum are simply raiding the cupboards and displaying whatever they find?

“One of the good things about the cuts – if there was a good thing – is that there is a greater emphasis on us to look back on our own collection and discover what we actually have. This exhibition was planned before the news about the cut anyway, but leaving that aside, this demonstrates that we have a really fantastic collection of work in Sheffield that audiences enjoy seeing.

“It means people might get the chance to see more work from names that they might not have heard of – but as this exhibition absolutely shows, just because someone is an unsung hero, that doesn’t mean the work they created isn’t worth us taking another look at.”

Newspaper boy who made good

Born and raised in Sheffield, Leonard Beaumont joined the Sheffield Daily Telegraph at 16, working as a junior while attending evening classes at the Sheffield School of Art. Following service overseas during the First World War, he returned to the newspaper.

He moved to London in 1936, working as a freelance artist working for the likes of United Artists and the GPO.

In 1950 he was appointed as design consultant for Sainsbury’s, and went on to pioneer a consistent, recognisable identity for the supermarket before his retirement in 1964.

The Power of The Print, Graves Gallery to September 14.