Pete McKee's Joy of Sheff – Review
I’m sat in the back of a 1950s double decker bus eavesdropping. “Pete McKee’s downstairs,” says a middle-aged woman sat two seats in front to her slightly older, plumper companion. “I’ve heard this is the last time he’ll do a show in Sheffield,” is the reply.
She then turns to a chap sat across the aisle who’s showing his daughter something out of the window as she gives him a nudge. “I love the things we do when we hang out with you,” she says, clearly excited.
And she’s not alone today. There is a real expectant buzz around the top deck of the ‘Joy of Sheff’ bus that is taking us to the Blue Shed in Attercliffe to check out McKee’s latest (and last? I doubt it) Sheffield exhibition. This one’s only showing for the day, so the ‘two penny’ bus ride is literally worth every penny and certainly adds to the drama of the occasion.
In the ten years I’ve been in Sheffield, Pete has gone from 'the bloke that does the cartoons in the Sheffield Telegraph', to one of its most famous and well-loved sons. He may not have the international recognition of an Arctic Monkey or a Richard Hawley, but here at home, he is probably as recognisable as many of the famous faces he paints.
I‘ve not been to The Blue Shed before, so I’m not really sure what to expect, and from the outside, the generic industrial warehouse exterior isn’t really befitting of the work of someone who evokes such a golden glow of the Steel City.
But that changes as you step from out to in. It’s dark, which is a real surprise, and you’re greeted at first by three huge strips hanging from the ceiling showcasing McKee’s signature Joy Of Shef painting. It already feels like Pete is trying to shake up your expectations of what a Mckee exhibition is all about. And it works. In the first room there are a group of mounted small wooden boxes containing classic smells of the Steel City – from Henderson’s Relish to The Limit’s carpet. Lovely.
Then there are a series of 1970s styled TVs simultaneously showing Pete’s mini-documentary as he takes you around the city he captures so expertly in his paintings. There’s even a cheeky nod to Damien Hirst with his meat pie and Hendersons Relish suspended in formaldehyde (Ok, water). It’s good to see he’s still got his sense of humour.
As you turn the corner and Arctic Monkeys second LP plays through the curtain, you’re greeted by an room full of classic Mckee works about Sheffield. Everyone will have their favourites – some because of the famous faces (Jarvis and Hawley both feature today) – but others because of the feelings and memories they evoke. I just end up wishing I had a few grand to spend because there are at least two I pretty much fall in love with.
Such is his success, there can be a feeling that Pete is almost omnipresent these days; but for me, he hasn’t lost any of his charm. And judging by the packed out bus and the huge queue of people waiting to get their artwork signed by the man himself, the rest of Sheffield is with me.
Words by Phil Turner