Sheffield-lad Pete has had a relationship with Henderson’s Relish since childhood, leading him to produce several key pieces of Hendo’s art over the years.
“I first developed my style of painting in 2005; I began by painting my personal recollections and experiences of Sheffield. If I was painting a kitchen scene, I would always ensure that there was a Henderson’s Relish bottle in there somewhere. The Hendo’s would serve as the visual cue that the painting featured a Sheffield household; the bottle wouldn’t always be at the centre of attention, but as a quiet constant in the background.”
If you were to visit Pete McKee’s Month of Sundays gallery on Sharrow Vale Road, you would find yourself stood amongst something of a homage to Sheffield history, lifestyle and culture. Notable footballers from both sides of the city, past and present musical icons, and city landmarks hang on the walls while various examples of local memorabilia such as an old Stones Bitter pump and, of course, limited edition Henderson’s Relish bottles are also on show. Over time, his artwork and various projects have helped him to become a Sheffield icon in his own right; examples of his work hang proudly in the homes of many Sheffielders and collaborations with the likes of Noel Gallagher, Arctic Monkeys, Disney and Paul Smith have helped him establish a growing international fanbase.
As a devout Sheffielder his childhood memories play a key role in some of his work and what collection of childhood remembrances is complete for any Sheffielder without early memories of the Henderson’s Relish experience?
“I’ll always remember the original metal top which came with the bottles. Back then, you’d have to pierce the top with a sharp knife and shake out the relish like vinegar. You’d have a bottle of Henderson’s kicking around the kitchen with a bit of crusty, dried up Henderson’s on top. I also remember being a kid and getting a meat and potato pie put in front of you with the thickest crust on earth. The only way we could moisten the huge crust would be to soak it in relish.”
It’s clear that McKee is immensely proud of his Sheffield roots. He describes Sheffield as a city of “Little Mesters” – a local term for highly skilled craftspeople who were either self-employed or working as part of a small team. During the late 1800’s, such workers were instrumental in establishing Sheffield’s reputation in cutlery and tool-making. Pete believes that the city’s proud history in local production and creativity goes some way to explaining the affection that Sheffielders hold for home-grown brands such as Henderson’s.
“We’re still very proud of the things we self-produce. It’s instilled in the psyche of the city’s people. Henderson’s Relish has become a real cultural icon over the last five or six years; I recall Kid Acne as being the first person to celebrate it in an artistic sense and that side has certainly taken off.”
The artist has featured Henderson’s Relish in his work on a number of occasions, previously decorating a bottle with Swarovski jewels to create “The World’s Most Expensive Henderson’s Bottle” and once suspending a bottle in formaldehyde as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Damien Hirst. But it’s the “Holy Watter” piece – the first painting to feature a bottle of Henderson’s on its own – which has become a particular favourite with fans of the sauce. To give the piece a bit of character, Pete created his own bit of Henderson’s mythology – claiming that the painting was inspired by a lost tattoo design found on a scrap of paper in an old Sheffield outhouse. However, the story later came to life as he was informed that an admirer of the painting used the design for a real tattoo!
The mystery behind the Henderson’s brand has made it all the more endearing to him; he fondly recalls visiting the old factory on Leavygreave Road and meeting the late Dr Freeman:
“There was always a bit of a Willy Wonka aspect with the old factory; there would be stories that you could sit outside of the gates all day and never see anybody go in or out – and, to be fair, you never did! But I think that intrigue is part of what makes it so popular. I recollect that Dr Freeman was very protective and careful with the brand – a huge level of concern went into it.”
Pete has acknowledged the close ties between Henderson’s Relish and Sheffield in his art by choosing the distinctive shade of orange used on the labels as the colour of Sheffield – using it to highlight specific references to the city. Much of his Sheffield related artwork deals with nostalgia and a sense of civic identity – something he believes the city has always held in abundance but hasn’t necessarily promoted until recently.
“You see, creating Sheffield as a brand is a fairly recent development. We’ve always been proud of our city, but it’s not until recent times that we’ve become very vocal about that pride. I think once you started to get people such as Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley openly mentioning Sheffield in their songs and interviews, we all realised that we could start to shout about the place a bit more. As a family run business, Henderson’s Relish has that strong sense of uniqueness which people from the city love.”
That sense of uniqueness is key to what he calls the “cultural importance” of Henderson’s to its home city. He concedes that he can get slightly evangelical when it comes to introducing people to the product for the first time; then again, from somebody who shares his experiences and passion for Sheffield through his art, that is surely to be expected. However, somewhat surprisingly, McKee also admits to being quite sparing in his personal use of the condiment, describing himself as a “Hendo’s traditionalist” – he saves the relish for use on one fundamental dish: meat and tatty pie.