Snow White

The Swarfhorse timeline starts at Shepherd Wheel. Grinding an edge on metal goes back centuries before it, but this wheel – in use before 1584 - drove the oldest complete grinding shop still in existence in Sheffield, and it’s a complete manifestation of the grinding industry in the city.

Is it dormant or dying? Snow White sleeps in her glass casket, awaiting the kiss of life from some handsome Prince of independent means who may, or may not, revive her. The seven swarfs stand guard, petrified, yet ever vigilant.

Anthony Bennett made the sculpture Snow White of plaster and gold leaf covered in swarf (the ultrafine grindings produced by the friction of metal on stone). The torso was first sculpted in clay, then moulded, and cast in plaster of Paris. The plaster cast was then gilded with dutch metal (imitation gold leaf), before being positioned in front of Brian Alcock’s grindstone. As he went about his daily work, grinding all sorts of steel blades, the swarf was deposited on the surface of the sculpture by the water, thrown from the wheel, holding the steel grindings. As it flowed over the surface of the sculpture, the water ate through the dutch metal and into the soft white plaster beneath, simultaneously turning the colour of the gold into hues of crimson until reaching a point where the sculpture resembled a rotting apple – eureka! the metaphor: Snow White caught between life and death, the Wicked Queen triumphant...

Shepherd Wheel was one of many grinding shops working in the mid-eighteenth century when Benjamin Huntsman revolutionised steel-making in the city with the invention of crucible steel. It was the new hard steel that made production of a new type of tool possible - the machine tool.

“The efficacy of any metal cutting machine depends absolutely upon the ability of the actual cutting tool to do the job required of it. Indeed, it would be true to say that the machine is designed round the cutting tool since its proportions, its feeds and speeds are necessarily determined by the tools cutting ability. Thus Huntsman’s carbon steel made possible and influenced profoundly the achievements of the pioneer machine-tool makers” (L T C Rolt, Tools for the Job, 1965).

Who created the bespoke cutting edges on these tools? Sheffield’s grinders. Anthony Bennett contends that this is the origin of the expression “cutting edge”, as applied to state of the art technologies and new industries, since that time. And if it isn’t, the grinders should get the credit anyway.

Snow White