Harry Epworth Allen: Clerk, soldier, and 'Sheffield’s best artist'
Plus, some great recommendations of things to do this weekend
Good afternoon members — and welcome to Thursday’s Tribune.
In today’s edition, we have the next in our series of interviews with candidates to be South Yorkshire Mayor, this time focusing on the Green Party’s Bex Whyman. We also have an extended mini-briefing of news and things to do over the weekend. And we have a piece about the extraordinary life of a man many consider to be Sheffield’s best artist: Harry Epworth Allen.
A major milestone: Just a quick note from me to tell you the news that The Tribune today got its 600th member, just 78 days after we reached 500. When I started this last year I was (understandably) a bit worried about whether the idea would take off. But as a result of your fantastic support, we can begin to look forward to the future with real confidence. Thank you.
The good people at Now Then have very helpfully put together this indispensable list of ways you can donate to humanitarian causes in Ukraine. Collection organisers across the city are currently looking for clothing, medicine and toiletries, among other items. The list includes opening times and will be updated regularly. Molly Williams’ write-up of yesterday’s Ukraine-dominated council meeting can be found here.
Sheffield Labour councillor Sophie Wilson announced on Twitter on Tuesday that she was leaving the party, claiming that she “no longer recognised” it under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer. Wilson, who stood unsuccessfully in Rother Valley in 2019, says she will continue to represent her Arbourthorne ward as an independent. Her full resignation statement can be found on her Twitter page here.
An interesting piece on Sheffield blogger Peter Johnson’s website about his ideas for the future of the former John Lewis building. He thinks it should be made into what he calls a “festihotel” or a “space to break the rules of modern life”. The ambitious plans would see the ground floor be given up to street food, bars and cafes, while the first and second floors would be arts spaces and the third floor accommodation. This would all be topped off with an artificial beach, bar and pool on the roof. Where do I sign up?
A rare opportunity for a guided tour around Sheffield’s magnificent general cemetery will take place on Sunday. The tour will discover the stories behind some of the cemetery’s 87,000 burials including Mark Firth, Samuel Holberry, the Cole Brothers and George Bassett. It will also take in the French-inspired catacombs and listed monuments of the Grade II*-listed Victorian cemetery including the recently restored Samuel Worth Chapel. Tours cost £5 per person and start at 1.30pm and 2.30pm.
For the more politically inclined, The People’s Assembly have organised a major demonstration to protest about the cost of living crisis on Saturday, March 5. Two separate marches will begin at 12pm: one at Sadacca on the Wicker and one at St Mary’s Church on Bramall Lane. They will then come together outside Sheffield City Hall for a rally.
If it’s a drink you want, the best place this weekend looks to be Trafalgar Warehouse for Sheffield’s Indie Beer Feast 2022. Taking place on Friday and Saturday, the event will feature beers from all over the UK as well as low-intervention wines, fine cider and delicious street food. There are two sessions on each day and tickets are £6.50-8.50. For all the details, see the Our Favourite Places preview here. Also taking place on Friday and Saturday is Peddler Market and Vivacity, a new family-friendly light show in the Peace Gardens from the organisers of Illuminate the Gardens.
‘We’ve got to get things moving’
Until Bex Whyman came along, there didn't used to be a Green Party in Rotherham. The 38-year-old mother of two set it up herself when she stood as a parish councillor in Hellaby seven years ago. “I wanted to vote Green and couldn’t,” she tells me over the phone during her lunch break on Wednesday. “So I made it so people could.”
Since then she’s stood unsuccessfully to be a councillor in the Rotherham Borough Council ward of Brinsworth and Catcliffe in 2017, attempting to get the Greens a first foothold in what has traditionally been a staunchly Labour area. Now, she’s been chosen to be the party’s candidate for South Yorkshire Mayor.
Originally from Wincobank, Whyman moved to Bramley in Rotherham when she was 13. She now works as a senior analyst for an education company based in Sheffield and lives in Dore. Her personal story perhaps gives an indication as to why a party that doesn’t have a single councillor in South Yorkshire outside Sheffield was keen to have her on the ticket.
“The party in Rotherham is growing but in Sheffield, it is on the next level,” she tells me. “I have roots all over South Yorkshire so I think that’s one of the reasons [Green leader] Douglas [Johnson] was excited for me to stand.” These roots include family in Barnsley and in Doncaster, where her parents live and are active in the local Green Party themselves.
The second mayoral candidate to be announced (after the Yorkshire Party’s Simon Biltcliffe), Whyman has already been campaigning for months, although due to the pressures of work and family not as often as she’d like. “I have a full-time job and I am a mother as well which is also a full-time job,” she says. “But I juggle lots and try to get out as much as I possibly can.”
As for how the party might do in May, an improvement on 2018 (when Rob Murphy came fourth with 20,339 votes on a 7.8% share) would be seen as a success. But Whyman is allowing her sights to go a little higher thanks to the party’s recent upward trajectory in national opinion polls. “Third would be nice but I would love a close second,” she admits.
She tells me the region’s poor bus and rail services are actually the reason she recently moved from Rotherham to Sheffield, and of the decisions facing any new mayor, the future of the region’s public transport system is probably the most pressing. Unsurprisingly, as a Green, she is strongly in favour of bringing bus services back under public control or “franchising” them.
She acknowledges creating a fully publicly-owned model like in Nottingham will take time but is still disappointed that Labour hasn’t made more progress on this issue in the last four years. “Dan Jarvis has talked about [franchising] and there have been discussions but ultimately that process needs to be started,” she says. “We’ve got to get things moving.”
Harry Epworth Allen: Clerk, soldier, artist
Like so many young men of his time, Harry Epworth Allen’s life was irrevocably changed by the First World War. Born in Broomhall in 1894, he was just eight years old when he won his first art prize in a Sheffield Weekly Independent competition. As well as his artistic abilities he was also a talented student, graduating top of his class before taking up work as a clerk at Arthur Balfour’s steelworks. But his life changed dramatically after he enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1915.
His skill in drawing saw him posted to France as an assistant to the observation officer. There he detailed enemy troop and equipment locations by sketching them in the field, and in 1916 was moved to the front line. In 1917, the King Edward VII School Magazine detailed his award of the Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry. The piece also noted he had been badly wounded, with one leg amputated above the knee and the other seriously injured by shrapnel.
Private H.E. Allen (R.G.A.) has been awarded the Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry under heavy shell fire on January 25th, 1917. Under heavy shelling of the enemy he found his officer completely buried in the dug-out, and, though under heavy fire, tried to extricate him. A shell falling within a yard of him buried and bruised him, but he managed to get free and obtain further assistance and save the officer’s life. Unfortunately, Allen himself was badly wounded in both legs, and lies in hospital in France.
A year later he was discharged on medical grounds and returned to Balfour’s. But he continued to pursue art and, after he was made redundant in 1931, decided to try to make a living as a professional. His rise to a degree of fame in the art world was rapid. He made his first public sale in 1932 (Leeds Municipal Gallery bought his painting “Hikers”) and in 1933 he had three works accepted at the Royal Academy.
Dr John Basford is the author of the only book ever to have been written about him: Harry Epworth Allen: Catalogue of His Works (2005). He told The Tribune he wrote it because Allen was a “brilliant man” and nobody had written a book about him before. Of the main Sheffield painters of the time, David Jagger was a popular portraitist and Stanley Royle a highly regarded landscape painter. But, according to Basford, Allen was “trying to do something more”. “I do think he was Sheffield’s best painter,” he tells me.
“When you have seen some Allen pictures of Derbyshire you look at the landscape in a different way,” he says. “That is pretty rare in a painter.” But as well as a talent for capturing the essence of a landscape, Basford believes he can see some of Allen’s experience of war in his “slightly ominous” work. Big holes and gaping chasms feature prominently in his paintings. “I think you can see he had a strange relationship with the earth,” he tells me.
Looking at his paintings now, the influence of modernism in the repeated patterns and stylised lines is clear. In the early 1940s he was invited to write six articles for The Artist magazine in which he elaborated on his technique and aesthetics. He wrote that the artist is primarily concerned “with rhythm and design, and our colour must be employed for the purpose of reinforcing these fundamentals, and strengthening form”. He continued:
Accurate drawing is not necessarily significant drawing. Some of the world’s greatest pictures contain distortions of the human form, upon which any student of anatomy will immediately pounce. Nevertheless, these apparent distortions are intended to express some underlying rhythmical purpose, and are in harmony with the general scheme.
By the 1980s Allen’s star had waned but a young curator at the Graves Gallery called Janet Barnes liked his highly distinctive work and wanted to give him an exhibition. In 1984, she scoured the country’s art galleries looking for his paintings but in the end, could only find enough to put together a “fairly small show”. “I couldn't work out why I couldn’t find more,” she told us. “But his wife had actually sold many of the really strong ones.”
Because of this, many of Allen’s paintings are believed to have been bought privately, with some owned by well-known collectors including Frank Cohen and the Duke of Devonshire. But some examples of his work can still be found in Sheffield Museums’ collection, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and in the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. Sheffield’s Graves Art Gallery has just one of Allen’s paintings, the widely admired “Derbyshire Walls”.
On the rare occasions they come up for auction, Basford says Allen’s larger works can sell for £40,000 or more. “The really characteristic paintings can fetch a lot of money,” he says. “People really like the very stylised Derbyshire pictures. Even the little watercolours can sell for a few hundred each.” In 2021, Tennants sold a hoard of Allen’s smaller works at auction.
Like one of his contemporaries Kenneth Steel, Allen isn’t as well-known in his home city as Basford and Barnes believe he should be. But in the 1930s he was a highly-regarded figure. Writing in 1935, fellow Sheffield artist and long-time critic for the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (imagine that! A local newspaper having an art critic) Bernard Carr identified the qualities that he thought made Allen’s work so special. He wrote:
As the years have rolled on Mr. Allen’s work has shown a thoroughly consistent development. Breadth of vision, a strong sense of design and a striking originality marked his early pastels; it is those same qualities, handled with a finer sense of finesse and a greater measure of technical skill that dominate his greater works of today.
The Tribune would like to thank Dr John Basford for contributing original reporting to this piece. His book, Harry Epworth Allen: Catalogue of His Works (2005) is still available through www.colleybooks.com.