Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, 9th July - 26th August 2013

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An exhibition of artworks, created by sculptor Anthony Bennett, and Sheffield’s last jobbing grinder Brian Alcock.

The exposition aims to highlight the plight of the grinding industry, considers the possibility, and the will, to save associated skills, and celebrates over 500 years of grinding in the city.

The works, 11 sculptures made from swarf (the ultra fine grindings produced by grinding steel blades), 5 photographs, a film and a sound piece, were originally shown at 8 different venues, simultaneously, around Sheffield. They were: Shepherd Wheel, Butcher’s Wheel (Butcher Works Gallery), Globe Works, The Hawley Collection, Sheffield Town Hall, The Denny Building at The University of Sheffield, The Millennium Gallery and The Electric Works.

Now the sculptures and 'Stave' are to be shown at Sheffield Millennium Gallery from the 9th July to the 26th August 2013.

A grinder’s tale

When Chaucer’s Miller of Trumpington packed “a Sheffield thwitel” in his travel bag it was probably not the quality of the knife’s steel that sold it to him but the sharpness of the edge, the work of the grinder. Grinders have been at the heart of Sheffield at least since 1297 when the first cutler is mentioned in an official document – he’d made enough money to have to pay Tax – and probably for much longer. But while the names of Sheffield entrepreneurs and inventors are known – Boulsover, Huntsman, Bessemer, Brearley – the grinders remain anonymous, heroes without names. In 1844 Frederick Engels pointed out that wet grinders rarely lived beyond 45 years, dry grinders hardly 35. If the wheel didn’t explode with the force of a shell, the dust raised from the stone by the metal held against it got into the lungs of the man crouched like a jockey over his wheel. Today “cutting edge” is how we describe innovation and yet the bespoke grinder, the man (almost invariably) who can put an edge on anything a designer or specialist toolmaker requires, seems destined to become history.

Sculptor Anthony Bennett met Brian Alcock, the last “jobbing” grinder currently working, when the great collector of Sheffield tools Ken Hawley showed him a tool whose handles were so worn by use that Bennett saw a kind of ghost: the hands of its user. He abandoned the project he was working on to take up Swarfhorse. Swarf is all the detritus that finds its way onto the board placed to collect it as the grinder works: dust from the stone, sweat, grease, bits of wood, discarded blades … thrown into the “swarf oyl”, it would be taken away for recycling. It had never been used, as far as is known, for sculpture before but produces an extraordinarily strong but far from impregnable texture.

It is just one of the materials Bennett has used in a unique series of artworks to be seen from the oldest industrial site in Sheffield (the 16th century Shepherd Wheel) to the – yes, cutting edge – Electric Works in the city centre. It is a unique blend of the artist’s imaginative eye and one of the hardest and most skilful manual activities employed by mankind to shape the world we live in. It celebrates centuries of labour by those nameless heroes, mourns the passing of a craft, graft and ingenuity that epitomise Sheffield, and rages against our casual acceptance of the dying of the light.

Paul Allen Jan 2013

Swarfhorse – Bespoke cutting edge Sheffield

When I met Sheffield's last Grinder, Brian Alcock, in 2009, I was horrified to realise that once Brian retires (he is now 70 years young), and the last jobbing grindstone stops turning, then that will be the end of more than 600 years of professional stone grinding in Sheffield, and with it will be the loss of the skills associated with the trade – forever. Wishing to influence this predicament in some way, I persuaded Brian to collaborate with me, to create a series of sculptures and other artworks, to illustrate the plight of the grinder, focusing on the fact that the industry is presently very much alive, creating bespoke cutting edges for prototype blades and cutting tools.

The resultant series of artworks allude to a continuum delineating the creation of Bespoke Cutting Edges, in Sheffield, mechanically and digitally, and to show that the skills of the stonegrinder could continue to benefit contemporary designers, prototypers and craftspersons, if the will is there to keep that grindstone working.

Anthony Bennett Jan 2013

Brian Alcock

Brian learned his trade, from leaving school in 1957, at the age of 15, working alongside experienced grinders at George Barnsley’s, at Globe Works, grinding all sorts of blades on a wide range of hand tools. At the age of 19, he rented his first ‘trow’ (grinding trough) at Joseph Elliot’s, on Sylvester St, grinding primarily scrapers, pallet knives and butcher’s knives. After about 4 years, he moved to Richard Mathers’ (later taken over by Gregory Fenton) trows on Shoreham St. In 1974 he decided to try something different, and took work at Wragg’s refactories in the Loxley Valley. After 5 enjoyable years there, in 1979, aware that there was plenty of profitable grinding work about, he rented a trow at Gregory Fenton’s, who had moved to Beehive Works, and restarted his grinding business. Now aged 70, he is still there.

Anthony Bennett

Anthony has spent the last 30 years creating sculptural artworks and exhibits. He has worked extensively in collaboration with academics, historians, archaeologists, curators, designers and other artists. His work features in expositions, galleries, museums and performances worldwide.

Recently, in collaboration with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield, they conceived ‘The Ideas Bazaar’ 2011, which begat the critically acclaimed ‘Festival of The Mind’ 2012. Also in 2012, Anthony initiated ‘The Daft Craft Raft Race’, an artist’s challenge, to race rafts/artworks down the River Porter, to raise funds for charity.