Copley’s motivation was to subvert the restrictions of an art world dependent on elitist galleries and collectors, connecting artists directly with an audience.
More than 50 years later, Copley’s disruptive plans pale into insignificance next to the destruction of Covid-19, closing galleries internationally and making letterbox exhibitions a necessity.
Despite knowing nothing of Copley’s original doorstep deliveries, art enthusiast and marketing professional Rachael Sprague decided to establish a similar service for local artists in Sheffield More constructive than Copley’s slightly cynical project, The Art Post offers artists the opportunity to continue sharing and exhibiting work even when gallery doors remain firmly shut.
Sprague – who is head of growth marketing at education publication company Twinkl – had already united her passion for art with her marketing know-how in order to set up the Sheffield Independent Art Showcase last November, enabling artists to share and sell work on Facebook. Even though the group already has nearly 2,000 members, Sprague was sure there was a less screen-based and more wide-reaching way to generate interest in Sheffield’s artistic community.
“I have got a lot of friends who are artists and they have really struggled to exhibit their work or sell anything,” explains Sprague when reflecting on the impact of lockdown on artists. “There are online galleries but that is difficult because you can’t really experience the artwork – it is hard to see what you are actually going to get online. I just thought it would be really nice to bring the experience of finding art into the home.”
For £4.50 a month, subscribers receive a neat brown paper package, stamped with a wax seal, containing three postcards designed by three different local practitioners.
The initial issue – released last month – also included a sticker by Sprague’s partner, Josh Griffin (or Grifff as he is known in creative communities) and subsequent editions will feature poetry and blank cards to encourage audience participation. Details about the individual artists are listed in an accompanying booklet that reveals the inspiration behind each work.
The first iteration of The Art Post includes work by Kerry Louise Bennett, Dave Akehurst and Mark Pendlebury. As is Sprague’s preference, the pieces are varied; Bennett paints a lush, warm domestic scene inspired by the Bloomsbury Group, Akehurst creates a textured acrylic reflection of a British landscape and Pendlebury takes black ink to paper to detail an intricate shot of Sheffield’s Kelham Island.
Original and large-scale versions of the mini prints popping through doors are available to purchase online. The Meet the Artists booklet points recipients straight to the artists’ Instagram accounts, inviting commissions or direct messages and avoiding websites like Etsy that often cause confusion when searching for local art by promoting non-Sheffield based organisations that mass produce Sheffield themed items.
“It has been brilliant” enthuses Pendlebury. “It has boosted my following and resulted in good sales of my Kelham Island prints. I also sold the original artwork quite quickly.”
Pendlebury is relatively new to the art scene and decided to take part in The Art Post to raise the profile of his work. “I was made redundant last year, after working in IT for 30 years. I decided to use the opportunity to follow my heart and try and make a modest living from my love of drawing. I’d just started trading in December when The Art Post contacted me. I was flattered and only too keen to help and contribute.”
Artists can apply for inclusion on The Art Post website and Sprague has been overwhelmed by the amount of interest. “Getting work in front of people is always a challenge for an artist, with Covid making it impossible to exhibit at all, so I was thrilled to be invited to participate in The Art Post,” says Bennett.
“I’ve received so much positive feedback from people on Instagram since the postcards went out, both about my artwork, and the pleasure of receiving the gorgeous packet Rachael put together. It’s something affordable and simple that can really uplift people’s spirits in these difficult times.”
The “Sheffield” element of The Art Post carries as much weight as “art” does. Aside from the participants being from the local area, Sprague intends to always include at least one piece that celebrates the city. Pendlebury’s print of the Alfred Beckett & Sons sign on Ball Street does this overtly, and even though Akehurst’s shadowy cooling towers aren’t in Sheffield they are reminiscent of the much-loved structure that used to stand over Tinsley Viaduct.
“Sheffield has so much more character than any big city I know,” says Pendlebury. “It is the hills and the greenery that are an integral part of the city. Contrast that with the variety of architecture, the rich industrial heritage and the more recent cultural development of the city means there is endless inspiration for artists who love to draw on cityscapes.”
For Akehurst, the scenery of Sheffield has served as his main inspiration over the years. “I see part of my mission as an artist to reflect on my immediate environment and share my love of this city’s unique landscape,” he says. “It may be rows of terrace houses marching up steep roads or distant, misty city vistas bracketed by cranes and vapour trails. There’s plenty to go at.”
The decision to print the artworks on postcards ensures both the hefty hills and artistic skills of Sheffield are on display as subscribers can send the cards anywhere in the world. “I am really hoping that people see Sheffield as this amazing hub of artistic talent” explains Sprague, who lives in the city centre.
Postcards are also a personal way of staying in touch during lengthy lockdowns. When a lot of time is spent talking to people via laptops or mobile phones, The Art Post encourages people to put down their devices, and instead pick up a pen and send a personal note to someone dear.
With a swift uptake in subscribers in Sheffield, Sprague is already considering possible future locations for The Art Post.
“I think the North of England is an absolute gold mine for talent. I hope that friends in Leeds and Manchester take it to their cities and give it a go. I think that it is really important to be led by people who are local to that area and know the artists. It would be amazing to bring that experience to other places.”
But what about once the galleries reopen? Will The Art Post still be relevant? “It is catering to a different kind of artist,” says Sprague, who plans to promote as many artists as possible and has little interest in Copley’s original gallery shunning concept.
“Commission is something that a lot of people can’t afford in galleries, and I do think that it is nice to be able to offer something where I am not charging commission or charging artists. It is just different.”
Subscribe to The Art Post at www.theartpost.co.uk or @_theartpost