Millenium Gallery, Sheffield. 24th November 2022 to 12th March 2023

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Artists have always been fascinated by water and the ways in which it flows, ripples and, in one form or another, finds a route into our lives. We’re an island, surrounded by water. And our country contains more rivers, reservoirs, streams, ponds and lakes than we can count. It also rains.

The excellent exhibition at Sheffield’s Millenium Gallery aims to indicate how a variety of painters and photographers have captured water in their work. Not just in Britain, either. Thomas Heeremans’ “Winter Scene” is one of the earliest exhibits and shows people cavorting on the ice. The earliest is Titian’s remarkable large-scale woodcut, “The Submersion of Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea”, dating from 1549. It’s possible to spend a long time looking at the splendidly-realised detail in this.

Among many British painters the coast and the surrounding seas have inevitably played a large part in what they produced. There were art colonies in Cullercoats, Staithes, Walberswick, Newlyn, and St Ives. Artists like Borlaise Smart and Julius Olsson could catch the sea with its dancing lights in their work. Both are well represented in the Sheffield show. Smart’s “In the Bay of Biscay” made me think of a day I spent aboard a Royal Navy ship in its choppy waters. Olsson’s fine canvas reminded me what a splendid painter of sea scenes he was.  And I was delighted to see Stanley Royle’s colourful picture of the harbour at the Cornish fishing village of Mevagissey. Moving further afield, there’s a fine study of Iona in the Inner Hebrides by the Scottish Colourist Francis Cadell, along with John Lavery’s bright “Harbour at St Jean de Luz”. We don’t see enough Cadell or Lavery on display these days.

Around forty years ago I saw an exhibition called The Forgotten Fifties which included work by the so-called “Kitchen Sink” school (John Bratby, Edward Middleditch, Peter Coker, Derrick Greaves, among others).  Artists move on but I think I could still see some of Greaves’ early realistic mood in his “Venice in the Rain”, a picture that, with its greyish tone, challenges the usual stereotyped sunlit views of the city.

One of the joys of theme-styled exhibitions is that the visitors to the gallery come across canvases which aren’t major works of art but are well-painted and pleasant, I liked Tissot’s “Convalescence” which, as with all his work, tells a story; in this case a young woman, watched over by a companion (nurse, parent?), is curled up by a stream. Or there is Eric Ravilious’s “Drift Boat”. He had the ability to make the ordinary seem unusual. Another painting I’d never seen before was C.R.W. Nevinson’s view of tugboats off Manhattan. There is a feeling of movement in this picture which makes it attract attention. Nevinson is better known for his work as a war artist, and for his association with Wyndham Lewis and the Futurists, so it was a pleasure to see another side of his skills.

There is much more in The Sky to the Sea than I can cover in this short review, with paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, Turner, Cezanne, John Piper, Mary Fedden, Edward Wadsworth, John Nash (a mellow landscape), David Hockney, the ill-fated Charles Conder, and others, well placed in the gallery. I’m conscious of not having given the photographers due attention, but there seemed to be an imaginative use of the medium rather than routine pictures of rainy days or overflowing rivers.

All the work on display is from Sheffield’s own collections, and is a demonstration of what galleries outside London can and ought to do. There is sufficient work of quality available and constructing an exhibition around a theme means that it can be used constructively.