Art & Industry: David Hockney, Simon Palmer and the Salts Mill

Alan Dearling takes a long-ish stroll around Salts Mill in Yorkshire. An extraordinary space and collection.

An absolute ‘Wow’ of a place. So much art and history jumbled into a mighty and cavernous ex-factory space. Awesome. Magical wonderments… Exhibitions, original art works, books and prints, and a diverse range of products on sale from jewellery to antiques; postcards and signed artworks; outdoor clothing; high-end kitchen equipment. And the location of Saltaire Model Village and the seemingly never-ending mills are mind-boggling even without the Hockney connections.

Jonathan Silver established the 1853 Gallery – named after the year the mill opened – in 1987, as a place to exhibit the works by his friend and fellow Bradfordian, the artist David Hockney. As the publicity for Salts Mill proclaims: “It was an audacious move, filling an old industrial space with contemporary art and hanging paintings from the old steam pipes… The mill began to fill up with art, books, culture and flowers and also became a popular place for cutting edge technology businesses to rent office premises and manufacturing space.”

Salts Mill first opened in 1853 as a utopian vision of a better future. It was the brainchild of Sir Titus Salt. Vast in scale and ambition. It still feels slightly ‘unreal’ to visitors in 2021. Perhaps especially as we are wandering around in face-coverings in an indoor, industrial labyrinth. It was a massive cloth manufacturing operation, located right next to the Leeds Liverpool Canal and the River Aire. But, it wasn’t just another mill or factory. Sir Titus also built the model village of Saltaire right outside the mill gates. It was a place where his workers could (apparently) live in modern, sanitary housing near green spaces. This represented the relatively beneficent, philanthropic, Victorian factory owner. Salts Mill and Saltaire were named after their founder.

The Salts Mill continued to produce cloth until 1986, when it stood empty. Now, it is a monumental historic edifice. Filled with artworks and busy restaurants and cafes. There’s also an opportunity to learn a bit about the history of the Mill, and its old working practices.

Salts Mill curates many visiting exhibitions and special events. In recent years they’ve hosted works by photographer Kevin Cummins, poets Simon Armitage and Tony Harrison, the Yorkshire Fashion Archive and Cloth & Memory to name just a few.

The mill today is also a place of work for over 1,000 people, including providing a home to creative businesses from technology to landscape architecture and graphic design.

In 2001, Saltaire became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO noted: “Saltaire is an outstanding and well preserved example of a mid 19th century industrial town… The layout and architecture of Saltaire admirably reflect mid-19th century philanthropic paternalism, as well as the important role played by the textile industry in economic and social development.”

David Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937. He is the UK’s greatest living artist, constantly working, innovating, looking  – and looking again.

The 1853 Gallery houses a huge collection of pictures by David Hockney, cherry-picked from throughout his life. His work is dotted about throughout the mill. On my visit, an enormous room on the third floor was devoted to his series, ‘The Arrival of Spring’. This is comprised of a set of iPad drawings created by David in 2011, and printed at an incredible scale. And a film, an immersive video, which displays a sequence of evolving, ever-changing, nine photos of the Woldgate Woods through the seasons.

And, here’s a rather lovely and life-affirming video of Hockney’s latest show, the 2020 ‘Arrival of Spring, Normandy’ from the Royal Academy in London:

Also on display during my visit was a large collection of signed prints and original works by Simon Palmer. He’s a leading British watercolour artist. But, one that exhibits a somewhat weird sense of humour. Almost all of his works are off-kilter. A bit strange and surreal. Along with David Hockney, Simon’s work has been on display for almost 30 years – indeed, his pictures are dotted around Salts Mill.

Simon Palmer’s signed, limited edition book, ‘Pebbles on a Beach’:

If you are anywhere in striking distance of Saltaire (also worth a look around, including the unusual Saltaire United Reformed Church) and the Salts Mill (nearest conurbation is Bradford), take the time for a visit – actually, make plenty of time. This is a Big Show! Here’s video of Rick Wakeman playing, ‘Morning has Broken’, probably recorded from the Saltaire church:


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