Sheffield’s early greatness rested on the small enterprises of individual cutlers. Now they are gone and Stephen McClarence reports on what has become of the sweaty workshops of the ‘little mesters’.
I put it to Charlotte Tollyfield that £430 is a lot to pay for a sugar bowl. She smiles and points to another of her tea-table creations: the silver teapot (gleaming, cubic and Art Deco-ish) that won her the Best New Merchandise Award at this year’s prestigious Goldsmiths’ Fair in London. “That’s £5,000-worth of teapot,” she says, not quite casually.
The price tag? Well for a start, says Charlotte, a Sheffield-based designer silversmith, the silver alone cost £1,300. “And it took nine months on-and-off to make. If I’d worked at it solidly, it would have taken three to four months.”
Would she expect a buyer actually to use it as a teapot? “Everything I make can be used, but it’s not meant as an everyday object. You bear in mind the kind of people spending that kind of money.” Most bespoke silverware, she reckons, spends more time on display than being used. Teabags don’t really figure in the scheme of things.
The teapot isn’t – but the £430 silver sugar bowl is – in Christmas Crackers, the annual “showcase for affordable designer crafts” at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery. The exhibition, now in its tenth year, features work by 90 or so craft workers from all over the country, and includes jewellery, textiles, glassware, ceramics and, this being Sheffield, metalwork.
Among the 1,000 pieces on show when it opened – sometimes at a few pounds each – were fabric-covered notebooks, abstract ties, hat pins and ear rings. There’s some radical stuff, plenty that’s chic, but also pottery that celebrates the picturesque appeal of hedgehogs, foxgloves and butterflies. “Original gifts for sale” is the lure.
“We’re trying to present an alternative to what’s available in the shops,” says exhibition curator Rowena Hamilton. “The thing that really marks it out from the high street is that everything is either individually made or made in small batches.
“We’re not necessarily selecting for a traditional art-gallery-going audience. We try to cater for a very broad range of shoppers, so there are products that are designed with young people in mind, and others for people who are a bit older and have a bit more money to spend.”
As she says, these are economically “tougher times”, with people careful about how they spend. So the exhibition aims to display things that are, in a William Morris sort of way, “practical and beautiful”. And jewellery sells well.
Which may be good news for Janet Wass, whose bracelet-like “cuffs”, made in silver and acrylic, feature in the show. “If you put ‘plastic’ rather than ‘acrylic’, it makes it sound cheap,” she says. “So I say ‘synthetic material’. It’s all to do with perception.”
Janet, who also works in pewter, shares a Sheffield workshop (and a joint business) with award-winning silversmith Victoria Kershaw. It’s across a cobbled courtyard in Butcher’s Works, an early 19th century tenement factory in the city centre that in recent decades went into a grand cobwebbed decay that seemed to sum up Sheffield’s metalworking industry.
Twenty years ago, when it was known as Butcher’s Wheel, just a handful of its workshops were occupied by the dwindling number of “Little Mesters”, Sheffield’s self-employed cutlery craftsmen. One of them, Ron Birch, was the last outworking scissor borer and hardener. He had a sign pinned up near his furnace: “Home Sweat Home”.
Ron’s workshop is now a smart gallery. Other workshops have been converted into apartments and Butcher’s Works has a thriving community of craftspeople who provide a heartening continuity with the past.
The grinders, buffers and etchers who used to work here might, however, be a bit bemused by modern creative processes. Janet Wass, for instance, develops her designs from photograms, placing objects (marbles, for instance) on sheets of photosensitive paper. She scans them on-screen, adapts them, sometimes creating mottled effects, and laser-etches the designs onto acrylic strips. Old-fashioned nitric acid also plays its part.
“My business is growing, but it’s not there yet,” she says. So, like many craftworkers, she has another job, as an art teacher. Charlotte Tollyfield has an evening job serving popcorn in a cinema. “I’m getting busier and busier with my sold work, but I still need a regular income to pay the rent,” she says.
In her creative life, Charlotte works in a studio at Persistence Works, a striking outcrop of angular concrete just down the hill from Butcher’s Works. A Sheffielder herself, she’s aware of both the city’s metalworking heritage and the differences between then and now. Where skills were once learned through apprenticeships, they now tend to be learned on university design courses.
She’s under no illusions about the challenges of the career she’s chosen. “There are shows and exhibitions where you don’t sell anything. You put all the effort into organising it, and you talk to people there about a piece and then they give it back and just walk away. It’s heartbreaking. People say it takes 20 years to get established.”
Basing her designs on her “little bit of an obsession with square things”, she makes no distinction between “artistic” and “commercial” work.
“I make things I like,” she says.
“And I quite like the idea that all this will outlive me by quite a few hundred years.”
Christmas Crackers is at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield (0114 278 2600; www.museums-sheffield.org.uk) until January 8. Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday 11am to 4pm. Free entry.
With the grain: ‘I think of most of my bowls as decorative objects in their own right.’
John White’s fascination for woodworking started when he was a nine-year-old Hull schoolboy. Within five or six years, he was winning prizes for his furniture.
“I got a bench at home and bought tools,” he says. “And when I went to grammar school, I wanted to do woodwork, but they said: ‘You’re not doing it; you’re good at academic subjects.’ The headmaster said it was far more important to do academic things. So I did the woodworking in the lunch hour. I lived wood, I suppose, but there was no suggestion of doing it as a career.”
And he didn’t. After university, he settled in Sheffield and worked in industrial management, with woodworking as a hobby. Eight years ago, however, he was made redundant and he has returned to wood, sometimes working nine or ten hours a day and exhibiting in galleries and shops. This is his eighth Christmas Crackers exhibition.
His workshop is packed with tools – scrapers, callipers, gouges of all sorts: roughing gouges, bowl gouges, spindle gouges. And lathes, two of them. And shelf upon shelf of pieces of wood – white ash, elm, beech – bought for their visual interest and woodworking potential.
He switches on one of the lathes and picks up a piece of beech – “a good wood to work with; it behaves itself, it doesn’t generally crack and you don’t get many knots in it. Pine is more prone to splitting.” As wood meets lathe, Catherine wheels of shavings cascade out.
He makes large decorative bowls, but is showing smaller, cheaper pieces – particularly tea light holders – in Christmas Crackers. “People don’t have that much money,” he says.
So is there a difference between his personal work and his commercial work? “I see myself as a craftsman who occasionally tries to produce artistic work,” he says, picking up an intricate bowl.
“A lot of the routine stuff I’d call craft not art, but with this bowl I’d like to think a bit more of the artistic side comes into it. I think of most of my bowls as decorative objects in their own right.”
Not just something to put apples in.