Featured Artist – Shaun Smyth

Our featured artist is Shaun Smyth. We’re taking a look at how he is capturing our industrial heritage as it gradually disappears from the North-West. Over the past 3 years he has been working with photographer Lee Harrison to record the iconic Fiddlers Ferry Power Station before its closure last month.

How did this project come about?

I am fascinated by the industrial landscape as I grew up with it on my doorstep in Runcorn. I had already documented the Mersey Gateway Bridge construction from start to finish. The toll bridge spanning the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal opened in October 2017 and I was eager to start a new project. I heard that Fiddlers Ferry Power Station was going to be decommissioned and got in touch with SSE who run the facility.

Director Marc Rudd was very interested in our proposal to capture life at the power station before it closed its doors.

‘Back in 2017 Shaun contacted me to see if Fiddlers Ferry would be interested in working with him and Lee on a project to capture Fiddlers Ferry’s impact on the local landscape. We got talking about Fiddlers Ferry’s limited operational life as SSE drives to a zero carbon future, plus the government’s policy dictating no coal fired power station would be in operation post 2025. We thought it was absolutely the right time to capture not only Fiddlers Ferry but the people who work at Fiddlers.’

‘Fiddlers has been an operational power station since 1971, it has made a huge socio-economic impact on the local and surrounding area. The number of people who have worked at, or have friends or family that have worked at Fiddlers, is almost immeasurable.’

‘The body of work produced by Shaun and Lee in the last years of Fiddlers Ferry’s operational life, captures, commemorates and celebrates the working lives of the thousands of us who have passed through the gates, to make not only electricity but industrial history & heritage. I know this body of work will be cherished by the Fiddlers family, as Shaun and Lee’s works help us to look back with fondness and affection on our time at the greatest of power stations, Fiddlers Ferry.’

Marc Rudd CEng FMIMechE
Director of Engineering and Innovation, SSE Thermal Engineering and Innovation

Why is it so important to capture this industrial heritage?

Fiddlers has been an important part of the landscape for the last 50 years, the station forms part of my early memories of childhood. Having the opportunity to artistically document the years leading up to its decommissioning has been a privilege and an honour. Having being brought up in Runcorn, I am proud to be part of recording and preserving this iconic site’s industrial heritage.

It is essential for us to move towards greener energy production but it is also important to create a visual historical archive for future generations to see the power station in full operation. This was the last coal power station run by SSE and one of only 5 coal fuelled sites left in the UK.

What artists have inspired your practice?

My tutor, Mike Knowles, Professor of Fine Art at John Moores University, was very influential. His style can be directly linked to the teachings of David Bomberg and the Borough Poly, London. Through this line I have an affinity and respect for such artists as Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.

I also admire Jeanette Barnes whose work has a strong industrial and architectural theme. She creates in-depth series of work and large energetic drawings of the urban landscape.

What were the challenges of working onsite at an active power station?

We were granted exclusive access to all areas and worked with SSE to record the inner life of the station from a series of vantage points and locations. But we always had to bear in mind that it was a working site. We were given Health and Safety training and PPE equipment. We weren’t allowed to set up easels or draw for long periods onsite, so the camera was invaluable to capture the daily activities the workers undertook and the structure of the site. These photographs were taken back to the studio where I produced studies in charcoal. I am now working these up into largescale oil paintings.

What was the feeling onsite amongst the workers?

A little bit of sadness that the site was closing, but the work force added a lot to the artwork. They pointed out hidden features of the power station and told me interesting stories. Lee is hoping to create a film which will look at their experiences, different job roles and what Fiddlers meant to them.

What were the problems of working on such as large scale and capturing such huge structures?

This colossal site can be seen for miles around. Inside the towers it’s almost like a cathedral. To depict the scale of the place, I began to create huge artworks. I want to give viewers a sense of being overwhelmed by its scale. The largest work is 32ft by 5ft. Capturing Fiddlers Ferry within the landscape is very important too.

Some of the artworks are too large to work on in my studio so initially I set myself up in the power station’s cafeteria. This was great, as the workers would come and look at the sketches during their lunch break. They’d point out things that I had missed or thought should be included.

Now I have set up a working area outside the Art Department at my school. The pupils can see the work in progress and it gives me the space I need. I have also adapted tools to help me work on such a large scale. Instead of palette knives, I use trowels; 6 inch paint brushes have replaced artist brushes.

What were the benefits of working alongside a photographer on this project?

I first came to know photographer Lee Harrison through social media, I recognised our common interest in industrial landscapes through the photographs that he had posted. We worked together on the Mersey Gateway project and decided to continue our collaboration. We fed into each other’s practice particularly looking at ways of creating compositions. The time I could spend onsite was limited because of my teaching responsibilities. However, Lee could go to Fiddlers Ferry during school hours and capture what was happening during the working week.

Where will the artworks that you have created end up? Will they be on display?

The power station has closed but the project is still ongoing. There is a large amount of work to do onsite still. We hope to follow the next phase of SSE’s project to decommission the power station.

Warrington Art Gallery are interested in exhibiting the final paintings and photographs. We are keen at the local community, particularly around Warrington and Widnes, have the opportunity to see the completed body of work.

How have the local community reacted to the project?

I have been posting images of the photographs, sketches and paintings we have produced on social media. We’ve had a great reaction from the community around Warrington and Widnes – including interesting comments from people who worked at the power station when it first opened.

What do you think you would like to work on next?

I’d like to focus on the Manchester Ship Canal – it has a personal connection for me as my Dad worked on a tug boat on the canal for several years. The boat was called the Daniel Adamson and is now used as a canal tour boat. I would like to capture the landscape from the point of view of the water. People and goods were transported along this route for hundreds of years and I think it is another important part of our North West heritage.

Category: Featured Artist