‘I don’t consider myself a great ‘artist’, but an entertainer,” says Joe Scarborough. “After all, I make things that people could do quite well without. So, I am like an entertainer at a working men’s club, hitting those four or five gags to make sure they come back next week.” This statement sums up the 81-year-old painter perfectly. He is self-deprecatingly northern, with a thrifty mindset and a clear-eyed understanding of the magic recipe that led to his colourful cityscapes arriving above every other mantelpiece in Britain’s steel city.
The journey to Scarborough’s studio in Sheffield city centre is like a treasure hunt. I am given the name of a boat and directed to the quayside, where I am told to ask after Joe in a cafe. Despite the fact it is lunchtime rush hour, the sandwich purveyor removes his apron and directs me to Scarborough’s canal boat: “It’s the one with all the paint pots outside.” The boat is both studio and home to Scarborough, who sold his house in 2002 after his wife, Audrey, died. He refers to her fondly and regularly, but admits he “took on every man’s dream of a shed – a shed on water!”
With the bed at one end and the kitchen at the other, the bulk of the boat is reserved for painting. Painting, not paintings, mind – he doesn’t keep any of his works – “They are like children, I send them out to work.” The only real evidence of his artistry is a work-in-progress on the easel. The canvas already has all the hallmarks of a Scarborough classic: cartoonish with thick black lines and bold colour it fills Sheffield’s industrial district with the vibrancy it would have enjoyed in the 1950s. It is nostalgic and joyful, telling endless stories about the city Scarborough knows so well.
Born in 1938 in Pitsmoor, Sheffield, Scarborough’s artistic training was of a singularly northern sort. He began drawing as a child on the back of giant reports his dad would bring home from his role as an engineer in the steel works. At 18, he went down the pit at the Thorpe Hesley colliery, which was to transform his artistic practice – and not just because it forced him to turn to painting full-time after a rock fell on his arm. But the dazzling moment his eyes adjusted from the dark of the pit to the light of day altered the way he saw the world.
“I saw the vivid change in basic colours. The green was emerald green, the corn across the Wentworth estate was hot yellow, the roofs were purple, and all the red brick buildings were beautiful. And, this is a dirty pit yard on an October day. It lasts for 15 seconds, that is all.”
Fifteen seconds is now Scarborough’s target time for a viewer to stand before a painting. “Your imagination works at a million miles per hour. All I need is 15 seconds and you do the rest.” The 15-second rule should be the minimum because the level of detail in his lively paintings commands much longer viewing. Without a prolonged look, you’d miss the girl with her arms open wide as her dad comes home from work or the flask of tea between two tired boat workers. Although Sheffield is the backdrop, Scarborough’s real subject is its people.
“It wasn’t a bolt from heaven, but a slow realisation that, ‘Joe, your subjects are right under your nose.’ I became nosy and I couldn’t stop observing – every time something happened, or I walked past somebody gossiping. You can build a 20×24-inch painting about a conversation on a bus. And I have done, many a time!”
Inspired by such directors as John Huston, who had a company of actors who would appear in multiple films, Scarborough’s Sheffield-based “characters” reappear in different works, distinguished by their style of dress. A couple on a motorbike is sighted racing home from a day’s work at Robert Sorby and Son; later they appear passing the canal. A woman in a smart pink two-piece is waving to someone outside a factory; elsewhere she is breaking up a fight. This recycling technique has developed a level of curiosity among his regular customers, who wait eagerly for the next painting to see what their familiar friends are up to.
Across the decades that Scarborough has been applying paint to canvas, his beloved city has seen some dark days. Regardless, Scarborough’s paintings have continued to burst with energy – is he an optimist? “I think so. I like the idea of ‘We’ll manage.’ So, ‘I am out of work, but our Sheila has got a job’ – that sort of thing. We are really good at cutting our cloth, especially in the north of England. The religion of the north is work.” True to form, Scarborough continues to work every day from the quayside, where he gets ample inspiration from the toing and froing of a more modern type of office worker.
And, like any good worker, Scarborough has ambitions; he’d like to be on Desert Island Discs, and he sometimes daydreams about getting an OBE and meeting the Queen. “She’ll say, ‘I’ve got a couple of prints of yours and they’re magic.’” And out bursts the laughter that has given his paintings such life and humour for more than 50 years.
• Scarborough’s retrospective Life in the Big Village is at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, 17 August-24 November.