Almost a century ago, just after the end of First World War, a gifted group of amateur and professional artists established a creative colony in Sheffield’s Rivelin Valley. In 2017, for the very first time, a collection of their paintings was brought together by environmentalist Chris Baines. This important and previously unknown artists’ colony captured a moment in time when the Great War was over, the traditional water-powered industry of Sheffield was at an end, and the valley’s natural beauty was taking over once again.
The River Rivelin flows down into Sheffield from the moors of the Peak District. The city’s world famous cutlery industry had its origins here, and in its heyday there were 21 working water mills taking power from 3 miles of its fast flowing water, and producing anvils, scythes and corn as well as cutlery. By the early 1920s only a couple of the water mills were still working, and most of the mill buildings, dams and weirs had fallen into disrepair. Nature had begun to take over the industrial heritage and the Rivelin Valley Artists captured that mixture of the natural and industrial landscape brilliantly.
Until 2017, the oil paintings and watercolours were all in dusty lofts or hanging in family homes. Environmentalist Chris Baines brought together 14 of the best in a unique celebration of the skill and camaraderie of the painters and the romantic post-industrial natural beauty of the Rivelin Valley in an exhibition in Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum.
In an extra twist there is a strong link between the exhibition and the 19th century artist and critic John Ruskin. The view of the Rivelin Valley from Bell Hagg inspired Ruskin to build his museum in the Sheffield suburb of Walkley. His aim was to provide hard working metal workers with inspiring access to the arts and nature, and the Ruskin Gallery is still an important resource for Sheffield. One of the paintings in the exhibition is that same view from Bell Hagg, painted by Ben Baines. He was a metalworker in the city and also a gifted watercolour painter – exactly the kind of beneficiary that Ruskin had in mind half a century earlier.
Ben Baines, grandfather of environmentalist Chris Baines, was one of the painters who gathered around the much older professional painter Robert Scott-Temple, often referred to as “the Professor” when he settled in Rivelin Corn Mill in his seventies. W R E Goodrich was a professional artist and another Sheffield man, who had just returned from the WW1 front line. His landscape paintings are delightful and he is highly regarded for his portraiture and his still life paintings. He was sketched by a fellow Sheffield soldier, Frederick E Brookes, in the trenches in 1917, and Goodrich in turn painted a very evocative portrait of his mentor Scott-Temple five years later.
Scott-Temple’s oil paintings of the valley are truly magnificent and his work is still selling at auction in the USA today. Both Goodrich and Scott-Temple have paintings in the Sheffield City Art Gallery’s own collection.
Until 2017, The Rivelin Valley Artists’ Colony had been forgotten by almost everyone. Since then, a better appreciation of their significance has begun to emerge, and a number of “new” paintings have come to light. Three additional members of the artists’ colony are thought to have been identified, through paintings by Charles Edwin Dyson, Vernon Edwards and Charles Pigott. Chris Baines hopes that bringing the artwork to public attention will prompt people in Sheffield and elsewhere to hunt down more paintings of the Rivelin Valley from this romantic period in the 1920s and 1930s. Similar groups of artists such as the Pitman Painters of the Northumberland coalfield, and the artists’ colony in Cornwall’s St Ives are famous worldwide. In years to come Sheffield’s Rivelin Valley Artists may well achieve similar recognition.
Chris Baines, May 2017