Buildings Sculpture

The lions which finally came home

Photograph by RIBA

The next time you visit Sheffield City Hall, look out for John and Samuel. These two old fellows are a pair of stone Assyrian lions who have quite a story to tell.

Their tale begins in the early 1930s at Middleton-by-Wirksworth, a small village the other side of Matlock.

Made of Hopton Wood stone, the two lions were created by Sheffield sculptor John Hodge, a man with an elusive history, “a tall mysterious figure,” seen regularly wearing a large-brimmed black hat and matching cape, and causing fright amongst children at night as he walked to and from his project at Derbyshire Stone’s works.

The two lions, each four-feet-high and weighing 2.5 tonnes, were predestined to be night cats, commissioned by architect Emanuel Vincent Harris to sit either side of the “Entrance of Honour” to the stage of the newly-built Sheffield City Hall.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield
Photograph by BBC News

When the City Hall opened in 1932 the two lions could be seen by everyone in the Oval Hall, admired at first, but soon subject of ridicule and anger.

The trouble, apparently, was that the lions split up a choir or orchestra, so that there was a lack of cohesion between artists on two sides of the platform.

The lions became subject of letters to local newspapers: –

“The proper place for the City Hall lions is outside, on the pedestals flanking the columns.”

“These ridiculous stone lions block up valuable space in the centre of the orchestra.”

“Admittedly they are a fine piece of work, but they ought not be there. They obtrude themselves on one’s vision, and hardly seem to fit in with the otherwise pleasing artistry of the interior.”

The most damning criticism came from Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor, and impresario, best known for his association with the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Addressing an audience of musicians on stage at the City Hall in 1935, he reckoned that the platform had been expressively designed for “clock golf.”

“AND THESE,” he shouted pointing at the two big cats,” “THESE MUST GO. I don’t know who devised them, but it looks like Epstein. I suppose they are works of art, but why can’t they be placed at the other end of the hall?”

In 1936, the Sheffield Hall Committee, perhaps influenced by Beecham’s description of them as “horrors” and “huge brown beasts,” recommended to the City Council that the lions be removed. The council, not be bullied, refused to do so, and the two lions remained on stage for thirty years.

It wasn’t until 1962, a year after Beecham’s death, that the lions were banished when the auditorium was refurbished.

The two lions were bought for £600 by John Hadfield, the sympathetic chairman of Derbyshire Stone Ltd. They were hoisted out of the hall, put on the back of a lorry, and reunited back in Derbyshire.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

They were eventually built into the steps of John Hadfield House at Matlock, constructed in 1968 by Tarmac Construction, for Derbyshire Stone, and later becoming Tarmac Eastern’s regional office for over 30 years.

Photograph by Tarmac Roadstone

When the company vacated the building, the lions were moved to Tarmac’s Ettingshall office, Wolverhampton, and when that closed, the poor lions ended up at their regional office near Leicester.

Photograph by Tarmac Roadstone

After nearly fifty years living outside, the fate of the Assyrian lions took a remarkable twist in 2017.

As part of Sheffield City Hall’s 85th birthday celebrations, John, and Samuel, as they were now called, were cleaned up, returned to the City Hall, and given ‘pride’ of place in the foyer.

Photograph by Abi Jaiyola on Twitter
Photograph by David Johnson on Flickr

Sheffield City Hall

The winning entry for the Sheffield Memorial Hall. Photograph by Archiseek

A building familiar to us all, the Sheffield City Hall, on Barker’s Pool, but take a closer look at these  images.

The first is the winning entry by architect Emanuel Vincent Harris in a competition held in 1920, to design a new memorial hall, in recognition of those that lost their lives during World War One.

Sheffield had long recognised the need for a large hall for concerts, meetings, and lectures, and considered buying the Albert Hall on the site of what is now John Lewis. The proposal was rejected in favour of a new building.

The competition was judged by Sir Aston Webb (who designed the principal façade of Buckingham Palace and the main building of the Victoria and Albert Museum) and Frederick Ernest Pearce Edwards, city architect.

“An austere appearance well suited for a memorial hall with the best modern thought in architecture expressed in its compact yet comprehensive outlines.”

The original design of the memorial hall tried to avoid flights of steps, but the fall of the land in Barker’s Pool prevented it. It was designed to seat 3,500 with a smaller hall at the back to be added later if desired.

The second image is the runner-up in the competition, designed by James Black Fulton, a circular-shaped big hall with external dome and glazed shelters to the side doorways and vestibule.

James Black Fulton’s runner-up design. Photograph by Archiseek

Although the winner of the competition was announced in 1920 construction was repeatedly delayed by the fragile state of public finances during the Depression.

The interruption resulted in modifications to Harris’s original design, including a revision from 1924 that made greater use of steps outside, the addition of decorative flagpoles either side of the frontage, as well as long-running arguments as to what the building should be called.

You will see from the 1924 drawing, below, that ‘Sheffield Memorial Hall’ is engraved above the colonnade, but they were still squabbling by the time the foundation stone was eventually laid in 1929.

Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive

When it opened in September 1932, with a reduced capacity of 2,300, Harris’s building was called Sheffield City Hall, the smaller hall at the back recognised as the Memorial Hall.

The original budget was fixed at £200,000 in 1920. However, by the time it opened the final cost was £443,300… about £31.1 million today.

Photograph by ComedyGigs