Exhibition review: The Great Outdoors – Paintings by Stanley Royle in Sheffield

Averil King admires the varied northern landscape paintings on show in an exhibition dedicated to one of Sheffield’s well-loved 20th-century artists.

This delightful exhibition explores the work of the Sheffield artist Stanley Royle (1888–1961). Born at Stalybridge, near Manchester, his family moved to Ecclesfield, an outlying area of Sheffield, in 1893.

From 1904, he trained at the Sheffield Technical School of Art. His first job was as an illustrator for local newspapers, but his real calling was as a landscape painter; in 1913, he had three works accepted by the Royal Academy (RA).

Exempt from military service on health grounds, he first achieved popularity with Spring Morning among the Bluebells. Painted in Woolley Woods near his home, this was also shown at the RA. From then on, he became increasingly successful, with various commissions and, in 1930, he co-founded the Sheffield Print Club.

Royle’s early models were his teacher, Oliver Senior, and the Anglo-Danish artist Sir George Clausen, known for his agricult-ural scenes set in the English countryside and influenced by French plein-air realism. In his own work, he was acutely sensitive to the quality of light, a painterly attribute that enhanced both his winter scenes and summertime compositions, such as Morning on the Derbyshire Moors of 1920.

Here, sunlight lends the young woman’s dress and bonnet a pale-blue hue and plays on the purple heather around her, while the moorland in the distance behind remains in dense, deep-brown shadow.

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The artist’s rugged style of painting particularly suited the terrain he most often portrayed the nearby hills and dales and the bordering Derbyshire countryside.

Primarily painting in oil, his confident, vigorous brushwork convincingly relayed the appearance of rough moorland, small, glinting streams running through clefts in the hills, old stone villages and venerable farmhouses. Winters as well as summers saw him out on the hills, capturing the scene in dappled snow or in deeper drifts that covered the land.

The farmyard scenes, especially, have a distinctly ‘period’ atmosphere that recalls a different age. In front of the old farmhouse in The Farmyard, 1914, a boy leads a horse to drink from a pond and Wintertime, 1926, shows a farmhouse with its roof covered in snow and a girl feeding hens beneath a tree. The appealing Gateford Farm in Snow, 1936, portrays a scene devoid of farm vehicles, with its buildings nestling peacefully in deep snow.

In 1922, Royle received an important commission from a local art dealer, Frederick Horner, for four large views of Sheffield, painted in oils and now owned by Museums Sheffield. Sheffield remains today quite a green city, but, although Royle commem-orated its many churches and green spaces, he didn’t hesitate to portray the steelworks that were still busy in his lifetime.

Sheffield from the Park (1923) shows children playing in the foreground and the spires of the city’s many churches reaching skywards; by contrast, the grim, panoramic Sheffield from Wincobank Wood (1923) contains little other than industrial buildings belching flames and smoke.

In his self-portrait dated 1934, Royle depicts himself as a slightly raffish, bohemian character wearing a colourful scarf and holding a half-smoked cigarette. Yet, having met his future wife, Lily, at a local skating rink some 20 years earlier, he was a devoted family man. Their daughter, Jean, was born in 1915 and Lily was, in fact, the model for Morning on the Derbyshire Moors.

In 1931, to escape the Depression, the Royles left Sheffield for Canada, where Royle eventually taught at the Mount Allison University until they returned to England in 1945. He also found time to paint and two works shown here record that country’s very different landscape.

Royle also worked in pencil, watercolour and pastel and produced evocative lithographs. So that we can appreciate his versatility, examples of works in these mediums are also on display, including the quiet, undated pastel House with Trees, which hangs among the bolder works in oils. In the final room are some of the artist’s preliminary pencil sketches, including studies of a horse and the still, calm lithograph Moonlight (1930), in which a village church stands at the foot of the sheer wall of a quarry.

In old age, Royle didn’t hesitate to adapt his style in keeping with modern trends. In his Mevagissey, Cornwall, painted during a holiday in the summer of 1960, he introduced bright, primary colours and near-abstract shapes to delineate the clifftop houses, the warehouses below and the fishing boats moored in the harbour. In doing so, he created an appealing image quite different from his earlier compositions.

‘The Great Outdoors—Paintings by Stanley Royle’ is at the Graves Gallery, Sheffield, until May 30 (0114–278 2600; www.museums-sheffield.org.uk).