The great thing about interviewing Joe Scarborough is that you just wind him up, point him in the right direction, and let him talk.
So, when I say: “Tell me about this enormous picture of yours, Joe”, that’s it for about half an hour. “Over this side, there’s a bloke going off-shift from the steelworks,” he says. “Down there there’s a policeman. Wherever you looked in those days there was a bobby on the beat. And up here it’s the council house boom, and then the flats...”
The picture he’s describing is 30 feet long and eight feet deep. As big as a billboard, it took him six years to paint and 12 men to carry into Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum. Weighing a ton and a half, it was brought from the museum stores on a low-loader lorry and has just gone on permanent display, stopping visitors in their tracks.
It’s called Sheffield Through the Ages, but that doesn’t really do it justice. This is a sweeping panorama of the city’s last century, a great swirling pageant of incident reflecting the change from industrial to post-industrial to regenerated. Poster-paint bright, it takes in the Blitz, Coal Not Dole, snooker at the Crucible, spotlit divas at the Lyceum, Messiah at the City Hall, trams, pigeon lofts, allotments, the Peak District, Wednesday playing United, wedding guests posing for photos in front of the Peace Gardens fountains.
It’s the city in CinemaScope, telescoping time and place in a dazzle of everyday detail. Little figures swarm across it, a hint of Lowry about them, but cheerful, not trudging. “They’re well-fed Lowrys,” says Joe. “Welfare State Lowrys.”
He gives me a guided tour of the picture. Housewives gossip over the back garden hedge as their washing billows around them. Older people play bowls in the park; younger ones run marathons. Others march with banners to protest, or to celebrate Whit Sunday. With Supertram, the Winter Garden and the minareted Heeley mosque bringing it up to date, there are vignettes at every turn. “And here’s the new Sheffield – people eating out on the street and drinking wine not beer!” says Joe, fielding greetings from passers-by. “How are you, Joe?” “Tip-top!”
Joe’s good humour and gift for nostalgia have helped his pictures and prints sell well. Over the years people have joked that half the homes in Sheffield have had one framed over the fireplace.
He calls himself “a village celebrity”, but that underplays it. He’s one of the “Sheffield Legends” marked by brass plaques studding the pavement outside the Town Hall – up there (well, actually, down there) with Michael Palin, Margaret Drabble, Seb Coe, Sean Bean, Jessica Ennis-Hill and a dozen others. Unlike most of them, he still lives in the city where he was born. Lives, intriguingly, on a narrowboat, where we meet up before going to the museum. The boat is moored at Victoria Quays, the gentrified name for the Canal Basin, where once-decaying warehouses have been refurbished as offices. In an extravagant bit of downsizing, he moved here from an 11-room house after his wife Audrey died in 2002. “Bought the boat on a whim,” he says. “Never looked back.”
With a bed across one end and a wood-burning stove, it’s as busy as his pictures, a clutter of clothes, plastic model planes and ships, books, and his easel, brushes and paints. “People say ‘It must be cosy’, but it’s cold in winter and too warm in summer.”
There’s a lingering sense here of the Sheffield he grew up in. Born just before the Second World War, son of a steelworks foreman, Joe says he was “breast-fed on socialism and the great move forward”. His first job on leaving school at 16 (“no thought of university”) was as a lab assistant at Batchelors Peas. “I was measuring the fat in marrow-fat peas, and I got quite good at it,” he laughs.
“We were on the cusp of the end of rationing and suddenly it was playtime in England and we thought it was going to go on forever. It was boom time in Sheffield. The steelworks were belching smoke all over the place. We had council houses, little palaces.”
Despite his expertise with marrow fat, he left Batchelors to become a faceworker at Thorpe Hesley colliery, near Rotherham. “There was a certain romance in it, working down the pit. The miners were called the Guards Division of the labour movement.”
He left Thorpe Hesley at 25, and took on other jobs – park gardener, cinema doorman “with a peaked cap and a big red coat” – but his heart was in painting. “As a kid I painted dibs and dabs. At school, the art mistress, Miss Bramall’s last words to me were: ‘Joseph, be bold. Yellow, red, blue, all the primaries.’ You’ve got to hit people between the eyes.”
Miss Bramall would have been proud of him. His pictures wallop you with colour: scenes from everyday life, usually working class street life, “set from the Fifties to the early Seventies, the era of the Zodiac car”. They’re full of people, but the people don’t have faces. “I can’t do faces,” he says. “Women have hair, men have hats.” They scurry round canvases that avoid traditional perspective. It’s all foreground, with stories unfolding; it’s entertainment, a visual answer to music hall, he reckons, “the artistic equivalent of Barry Cryer”.
He talks about how metropolitan Londoners have sometimes classified his pictures as “naive” art. “You become an ee-by-gum Yorkshireman as soon as you get off the train at St Pancras.”
Whether or not, he approaches pictures like a director choreographing a ballet. “I’m propelling the eye from one point to another. All my people are going somewhere; nobody’s hanging about. And if they are, they shouldn’t be.” He’s pragmatic. Being a painter (he tends not to say ‘artist’) is “ninety per cent commerce, nine per cent art and one per cent ego”.
When he started out, he worked to a standard frame size – 20 inches by 24 inches – “because that size fits any council house chimney breast. It’s a 20 x 24 stage with four-inch actors.”
To sell them, he stacked them in a handcart and pushed them from pub to pub. The big break was an exhibition at a city centre cafe, and now, with perhaps 1,000 pictures and exhibitions in London, Chicago and San Francisco under his belt, he’s still at it, painting in his narrowboat – though not the 30ft canvas at the museum.
The picture dates back to a project launched before the Millennium. Sponsored by five local firms, it was intended for London’s Millennium Dome, but the project didn’t reach fruition. Joe carried on, though, painting it – from left to right – at Ponds Forge sports centre and Castle Market.
“I liked the idea of being semi-stratospheric,” he says. “It was like being Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. I kept expecting the Pope to come by.”
He often worked at night. “So the first critics were the cleaners. I asked them what they thought. They said: ‘Not bad’.”
Museum visitors are more enthusiastic. “It’s lovely; you can look at it for ever and ever,” says Jean Massey, a long-term Joe Scarborough enthusiast. “It’s all painted from the heart.”
Or as Joe himself puts it: “It an amalgam of a desire to be popular and knowing your limitations. I spent six years with this picture, so I wasn’t going to paint it drab. I like people having fun.”
As for working at night: “I can start at 9pm, go through the Shipping Forecast and finish around 2.30am or three o’clock,” he says. “When you’re working at night you feel you’re actually on nights, so it’s work, not enhanced leisure.
“People say: ‘Isn’t it lovely to do your hobby as a living!’” He laughs again. “I always say self-employment is starving at your own rate.”
Tip-top, all the same.