Steel Stories is a current project in which three photographers and film-makers are producing visual narratives of the steel industry in Sheffield. They are accompanied on their shoots by students from the School of English who are writing reflections on the visits. In this post, Jess Stone describes a visit to Cutlers’ Hall with photographer Andy Brown.
When you think about the production of steel in Sheffield, images of hulking men banging white-hot, heavy things in a smoky foundry are likely to come to mind. However, meeting Andy on his shoot in Cutlers’ Hall last week opened up a whole new side to Sheffield’s steel industry which I’d never come across before. Smack bang in the centre of Sheffield, Cutlers’ Hall is likely to be the grandest building you could walk past and barely take a second glance at. Passing it on your way to HMV or Primark, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the fact that this building contains some of the city’s most precious blades and artefacts.
After being buzzed in, I was amazed to find a multitude of high-ceilinged and lavishly decorated rooms containing some of the most beautiful metal ornaments and cutting implements I had ever seen. I’ve become accustomed to seeing the relics of Sheffield’s steel industry in dilapidated factories being sold off for plots of land or restored as nightclubs with 241 drinks signs in the windows. But here I was witnessing hundreds of years of determination to preserve the finest and most sophisticated items that Sheffield has produced.
Inside Cutlers’ Hall are numerous cases full of exquisitely crafted scissors, knives, tea sets and other curious stainless steel objects. However, walking around the building, I was struck by the seemingly arbitrary medley of various traditions and cultures that glimmered and glared at me from every wall, window and display case. Alongside the emblems of wheat sheaves which hark back to Sheffield’s agricultural beginnings are chandeliers from the Titanic’s sister ship and a sizeable portrait of Elizabeth II. Intrigued by the elephant head on the company’s coat of arms, I did some research into its significance and discovered that it was another cultural import, having been inspired directly by the crest of the Company of Cutlers in London.
In one room we find a giant turtle shell, which I later found out belonged to a live turtle who was given as a gift to the company in 1773 for the Cutlers’ Feast, sparking off the tradition of eating turtle soup at each annual feast. This icon of tradition comes along with ivory knife handles, the recurring elephant motif and various Latin and French inscriptions above doorways and fireplaces, which could leave the visitor wondering which tradition is truly being celebrated here. Amidst the few paintings on the wall which are not a portrait of a previous Master Cutler, there is a landscape of Sheffield in the nineteenth century, depicting an idyllic family picnic on a hill overlooking the rainbow and sunbeam infused city. Looking at this painting in this magnificent building, I suddenly feel a thousand miles away from Engels’ Sheffield and the sparks and fires of the factories I previously held in my imagination.
As we examine the rows of photographs of Masters Cutler (evidently the correct plural for Master Cutler), Andy tells me about his experiences of meeting various members of the company, one of whom was a Colonel. In another large dining room we ponder the ladies’ balcony, where the members’ wives may sit to watch the Cutlers’ Feast, if they so wish. It appears that, behind the grand doors of this age old institution is a tradition of hierarchy and ritual which stands just as strongly in the modern day. I am surprised to learn that the present Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire is almost four hundred and fifty members strong, all with the interests of preserving the history of Sheffield’s steel industry and promoting the production of high-quality blades for a sustainable future. In the private traditions and customs which have been adhered to for almost four centuries is the resolve to keep our steel industry as alive and great as it ever was. Andy’s photographs will offer a rare glimpse past these doors to share this history and long-lasting pride with the rest of the city’s population.