Images reflect a love of outdoors

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Sheffield artist Stanley Royle is being celebrated in a major retrospective – which includes a nice surprise. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Exploring Sheffield and its surrounding countryside on a motorbike specially adapted to carry canvasses and a paintbox, artist Stanley Royle, of one of the city’s most popular 20th century painters, was a familiar sight on the local highways and by-ways in the late 1940s and the 50s, and a major retrospective of his work –The Great Outdoors – opened at the Graves Gallery last month.

“His work very much reflects Sheffield and the Peak District in Derbyshire,” says curator Sian Brown. “And that is always a popular option for our audiences. We have a lot of his works in our collection and we had been considering an exhibition for a long time.”

Although born in Stalybridge in Cheshire, Royle was brought up in Ecclesfield, attended Sheffield School of Art and worked as an illustrator on local newspapers. In 1913 he had three works accepted by the Royal Academy and went on to create many scenes of Sheffield and the nearby landscape, combining the industrial with the pastoral.

Royle clearly had a wide range of influences – some of his early work, such as The Farmyard (1914) is reminiscent of Constable, while his later work, Megavissy, Cornwall (1960), painted a year before his death, is much more abstract and brightly coloured. As Brown explains, probably the biggest influence on Royle was the “en plein air” practice of the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists of painting in the open air.

“He loved going out into the countryside and finding the perfect view. He didn’t mind where it was or how difficult it was to get to. Even some of his larger canvasses were done in situ. If it was raining and he thought he might ruin the paintings on the journey home, he would hide them in a little cave in the Peak District and then come back to them later.”

Having taught at Sheffield School of Art in the 1920s, Royle moved to Canada in 1931 to take up lecturing posts at art schools in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, returning to Britain at the end of the Second World War.

During his time in Canada he found inspiration in the drama of the vast open spaces of the country, producing some striking scenes of the Rocky Mountains and the Canadian coastline and he continued to focus on landscape – and his love of painting in the outdoors – on his return to Britain. Somehow the images seem enriched by the artist’s experience of being among the elements while he was creating them. “You can see it in the use of colour, especially in the large-scale works of Derbyshire,” says Brown. “They are colossally impactful.” For Brown the most exciting aspect of curating the exhibition was an unexpected discovery. “Since 1953 the gallery has had three works out of a quartet of paintings which show very different views of Sheffield and I was always intrigued by what had happened to the fourth but we have never been able to find out where it was,” she says. “But then a lady wrote in saying she had a Stanley Royle painting and asking if we would like to borrow it.” To Brown’s delight it turned out to be Sheffield from Mayfield Valley, the fourth work in the quartet of paintings. “It is a beautiful snow scene which was sold to this lady’s family in the 1920s and had been passed down the generations.”

The four paintings are now reunited in the Graves Gallery. “They haven’t been together since the 1920s when they were painted and for the people of Sheffield that is really special.”