A word of advice to artists – think twice before setting up your easel in the street; it may do nothing for your self-esteem. Tim Rose recalls a fellow artist who was once painting a street scene. A passer-by asked him if he was a professional painter. “Not really,” the artist said modestly (though he was). The passer-by glanced at the canvas. “I thought not,” he said and moved on.
Tim tells the story while working on a watercolour of The Hubs, the giant drum-like building that was once the home of Sheffield’s ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music but now houses Hallam University’s student union.
It’s the latest picture for his online Just Up My Street project, which sends subscribers (free) a different view of the city every week. The pictures are painted over the previous few days and uploaded with the paint sometimes barely dry.
Most avoid familiar views in favour of odd, quiet neighbourhood corners, backwater rather than mainstream, alleys and allotments, parks and churchyards, streets of terraced houses, still Sunday mornings in the city centre. They capture the feel of Sheffield quite remarkably, they’re gritty and lyrical at the same time, often rather wistful, and they arrive as if by magic in your in-box every week.
“I’ve always painted Sheffield, but I don’t do nostalgic pictures,” says Tim, an urbane and long-established architectural artist based in the city. “I don’t want to do tourist-style pictures of the Town Hall; I want something a bit more interesting. I want it to be a record of life as we’re seeing it now, graffiti and all; urban dereliction as well as lovely parks. And it’s a marvellous way to publicise your work. Oh look, that woman over there is wearing red shoes.”
Remember the red shoes.
He launched the project in July 2012 and his online “catalogue” now approaches 70 pictures. Most are offbeat and don’t prettify Sheffield. Weeds sprout from the pavements on cobbled streets once noisy with the city’s old metal industries; graffiti-daubed walls stretch into the distance; cars speed along a ring road with vast gantries looming over them.
The project has encouraged him to explore parts of the city he’s never visited in his 40 years there. He admits he has never been to Graves Park, just a couple of miles from his home. “Most of us never go off our beaten tracks,” he says. And because of his familiarity with his own beaten track, he stopped noticing the sorts of scenes he noticed in other cities.
Sheffield has been a convenient base for his national career. His studies of St Paul’s Cathedral, Chatsworth and nearby Haddon Hall have been used as postcards and he has painted many “portraits” of private houses, including ones in Leeds, York and Tadcaster.
Pictures-in-progress are scattered around his studio, in Porter Brook Studios a few hundred yards from The Hubs. Tubes of paint, bottles of turps, four teapots (various sizes and colours), portraits (a new preoccupation), views of Venice and... what’s this? A night-time study of an almost empty car park, with a lone figure and a hint of Edward Hopper isolation. Yes, says Tim, that car park down there, pointing out of the window.
Varying light and seasons play a big part in Just Up My Street. Does turning out pictures year-round present problems in bad weather? Has he ever missed his self-imposed weekly deadline? No, he says, he incorporates the rain and the snow.
“If it rains I make myself go out anyway,” he says. “It may mean putting people with umbrellas in the picture but I don’t want this just to be ‘Sunny Sheffield’. The secret of success is to have no Plan B. Then you do it.
“One morning it was so cold that I closed the car door and it wouldn’t open again because it was frozen. I knew it would open if I heated the car up, so I did a picture of the scene through the windscreen while I was waiting. I always keep a spare set of paints and paper in the car in case I see something.” The resulting snow scene is on the website’s home page.
Normally, he paints on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday morning (weather forecasts are essential homework). Pictures generally take two or three hours and he posts them online on Thursday or Friday. They’re for sale and about one in four sells.
He finds Sheffield “a visually interesting mixture of nature and city in close proximity”, with canal-side walks offering buddleias and butterflies as well as relics of old industry.
A recent departure has been as official artist at a wedding, at Lotherton Hall near Leeds. “One of my students asked me to do it. I didn’t realise they were so quick. It was over in three minutes. I quickly painted them and filled in the rest of the room afterwards.”
The picture of The Hubs is three-quarters finished: a very Sheffield sort of view, he says, dominated by the shiny steel of the drums and the car park in the background. What’s he thinking about while he paints? “Colour and tone,” he says. “You see how those bollards are darker on the right than on the left?” Delivery vans pose challenges when they pull up directly in front of him – as three do in the half-hour we’re standing there together. A couple of people come to talk to him, but they’re friendly, not self-appointed critics like the one who insulted his fellow artist.
Occasionally when he’s out with his easel, people ask if he has permission to stand in a particular place. He says he’s thought of creating an “artistic licence” card to flash at them.
Two days after we meet, the finished picture pings up on my computer screen. The passing woman’s red shoes have become a focal point.