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Wonder and Dread (7): The Work of Salts

"The Work of Salts", my new commission for Salts Mill, has been exhibited in Salts Mill's People & Process Gallery since May 2018.

I've been wanting to make work in response to Salts Mill since I first set foot into the Mill. My first impression was a sensory assault: The whole World Heritage complex - Salts Mill and Saltaire village - is knock-out beautiful, with its setting on the river Aire and the Leeds-Liverpool canal, particularly at sunset or on a sunny afternoon when the buildings' sandstone has a lovely golden glow. The sheer size of the Mill is overwhelming. When you walk into the Mill's 1853 Gallery you're hit by the scent of the white lilies on display all over the room, and marvel at the colourful, over the top Burmantoft ceramics - enormous pots... but looking distinctly average-sized in the vast room!

As I explored the story of Salts Mill I quickly discovered lots of sources of inspiration for work that would fit with the themes of my "Wonder and Dread" project.

(1) Salts Mill is an important historic example of what we call today "good industry practice". If you are interested, as I am, in the conditions of workers in the textile industry and more widely in the question of whether any good practices are sustainable in a capitalist system you have to look at Salts Mill and Saltaire. When Titus Salt built Salts Mill and Saltaire village, the prevailing practice was to exploit the workforce and the environment in order to make as much profit as possible. Engels' 1845 "Condition of the Working Class in England" describes the horrors of brutal working and unsanitary living conditions in Manchester, but Bradford was very similar - in fact Engels once referred to Bradford as a a "stinking hole". That’s what Titus Salt reacted to.

View of Bradford when it was "Worstedopolis". Images courtesy of Salts Estates

He also reacted to a very volatile political situation - the Chartists' movement and organised labour were challenging the social hierarchy and ownership structure.

My impression from reading about Titus Salt is that he was very much a paternalist reformer - he wanted to lessen the conflict between capital and labour by improving workers' conditions so that more radical changes could be avoided. A good example of his position was the nationwide campaign for the 10-hour work day. Salts was opposed to it, but also acknowledged that factory hours were a bit long, so he suggested 11 hours as a compromise.

This is not to belittle Salts' achievements. Providing a 'model village' with decent worker housing, community infrastructure and services (church, school, hospital, community hall, almshouses) in a less polluted environment was way above the norm at the time. We know that Salt was concerned about environmental and living conditions - during his stint as Mayor of Bradford he (unsuccessfully) tried to improve pollution, sanitation and housing in Bradford City, which may have motivated him to build Saltaire - where he could achieve these improvements in an environment he was able to control.

Decent worker housing is still a major issue in the textile industry today. You see the conditions of slum housing in Dhaka or overcrowded worker dormitories in Chinese garment factories and it takes you right back to early Victorian times in England.

The thing that struck me most about Titus Salt is that he didn't have to build Saltaire. He could have retired very comfortably indeed and bought a pile in the country, like most people in his position at the time. He acted out of a strong sense of moral duty (likely driven by his Methodist belief) or, in today's terms , "social responsibility".

Contrast this to today’s multinationals and their powerful bosses who are always trying to get away with as little as they can - be it tax or workers' pay - in order to maximise profits. One difference is that Titus Salt was his own boss and therefore not beholden to shareholders and hedge funds who want to see high profits every quarter.

(2) Then there were Salt's gorgeous Victorian alpaca/silk dress fabrics made with alpaca all the way from Peru, which I wrote about in my earlier posts here and here.

Alpaca/silk dress fabrics from the 1853 Salts sample book, Bradford Industrial Museum

(3) I was fascinated by the extraordinary story of the revival of Salts Mill after the Silver family bought a defunct colossus in 1987 and brought it back to life. Like Titus Salt, the Silvers didn’t have to do this. Today, Salt's Mill' and the various businesses operating in the buildings employ over 1,000 people – no small feat in an age of zero hours contracts and the “gig economy”. It's also a place to enjoy art, have a nice meal and learn about our industrial heritage. Today we are used to this kind of post-industrial regeneration model but at the time it was fairly new, providing a template for how to tackle a now familiar set of questions: How do you protect your national heritage? How do you create jobs in a post-industrial world? How do you make art freely available for all without public subsidies?

Jetting the floor of what is now the 1853 Gallery in Salts Mill. Image from Jim Greenhalf, "Salt & Silver - A Story of Hope"

(4) Last but not least, my most important inspiration: the people who work(ed) at, and for, Salts Mill. I see the successes of Salts Mill then and now as the collective achievement of many people, from the alpaca farmer in Peru to the mill workers to the Salt family; from the Silver family to the young people who work in Salt's Diner. I believe that the success of a project is hardly ever just down to the work of a lone genius – nearly always it is the product of the efforts, large and small, of many.

The question was how to channel all these thoughts and impressions into my commission for Salts Mill? I was given no direction or requests from Salts - I could do what I wanted.

Initially I thought about making quite an abstract, textile-based work or work that incorporated textiles in some way, similar to the pieces in the Wonder and Dread exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum. But I felt the work shouldn’t just be about one aspect of Salts, I wanted it to be about everything that inspired me. Above all, I wanted the work to pay tribute to, and celebrate, all the people whose hard work made Salts Mill a success - a "people’s history" or, as I ended up calling the piece, "The Work of Salts".. So I decided to abandon the concept of incorporating textiles relevant to the story and... do a narrative painting. I do love painting.

My idea was to weave all elements of the "Work of Salts" together into a multi-layered “tapestry” (inspired by Salt’s gorgeous fabrics), using a colour scheme inspired by looking a Saltaire and Bradford’s beautiful sandstone buildings on a bright glorious day, and hopefully recreating the nice feeling and energy I had felt whenever I visited the Mill.

One of the initial sketches for "The rock of Salts"

The first challenge was scale. Everything you put into Salts Mill looks small because the building is so big! So I worked on 3 canvasses, not least in order to be able to get the work through my studio door. I wanted to recreate that feeling of expanse/wideness when you look at Salts Mill which is why I chose a wide landscape format. Also I wanted the painting to work both when looking at it from a distance as well as looking at it close up – people should keep finding new things to discover. So I needed a big, unifying structure into which to weave different stories.

I built the canvases up in layers:

The bottom layer is a Victorian map of world maritime trade routes, referring Salts Mill's global trade connections, and showing, amongst many others, the trade route Liverpool- Peru that was used to import alpaca fleeces to Salts Mill. I got the map printed (thank you Fashion Formula !) then painted over it to adjust the colours without losing the 'pattern'. The biggest challenge was to stretch the printed fabric on three stretchers so that the parts of the map would line up. I think I did it about four times!

Then - surprise, surprise - I found a way of incorporating a pattern from the Salts 1853 alpaca/silk sample book that I had so admired at the Industrial Museum: Just screen print the floral pattern - job done!

Left: Rose pattern from Salts' 1853 alpaca/silk fabric sample book, Bradford Industrial Museum

Right: Detail of screenprinted rose pattern

In part I used metallic or iridescent ink so that the colour would change depending from where you look at the painting, similar to the effects of the alpaca/silk cloth.

In the studio - screenprinting the floral pattern onto the stretched Victorian trade map

Next up was the mill in all its massiveness.

Work in progress - Salts Mill appears.

Now I had my basic structure in place into which to weave the people of Salts:

First, the crinoline ladies (and child) in the centre, modelling alpaca/silk fashion and painted after an1865 fashion plate. The alpaca/silk craze was the secret of Salt's success in the 1850s/60s hence all the work revolves around them.

Then came (a non-exhaustive selection of) all the people whose work made Salts, then and now:

  • Victorian Mill workers

  • Peruvian alpaca herders and their animals (modelled on real alpaca herders in Peru today whose condition and way of live is much the same as 150 years ago)

Work in progress - the crinoline ladies, Peruvian alpaca herders and victorian Mill workers

  • Titus and Caroline Salt

  • Jonathan and Maggie Silver (looking very un-Victorian!)

Work in progress - first founders and current owners bookending the top corners of the painting

  • Polish immigrant workers who came after WW2 (along with Italians, Slovenians, Ukrainians), represented by a screen print of the Polish health and safety notice on display elsewhere in the Gallery

  • a South Asian worker, representing the many Asian workers who came to work in the Bradford mills in the 1950s and 60s.

  • a young woman working in today in Salts Diner, representing all the people who work at Salts now.

Work in progress - left: Becky from Salts Diner; right: A South Asian mill worker

You'll notice that most of them are women. This is a fact - the majority of workers were women, and I didn't change the gender of any of the people I pictured. Of course there were men too - apologies in particular to the men working at Salts today, and to the South Asian immigrant male workers working nightshifts in the 1950s/60, for not being in the picture! However, seeing that most of the time it is women who get edited out of history I felt it was ok to redress the balance somewhat!

I had a lot of fun playing with scale and perspective, and interweaving all these people with the background. Lines of a maritime drift flow into a sleeve; a ship painted on a pot sails into the sea; trade routes become threads or the border of a skirt; a floral pattern becomes part earring, part something resembling a henna tattoo.

The final additions to the piece were the pots and lilies from the 1853 Gallery, bringing in a surreal element and adding to the pattern clash - although the maritime themes of the pots go quite nicely with the trade map. Plus some very discreet bobbins.


It was truly exciting to bring the finished piece to Salts Mill and have it installed in situ. From the reactions I got from staff, I felt that I had achieved my aim that the work should be a celebration of the place, and of them - the workers of Salts.

Installing "The work of Salts" in Salts Mill's People and Process Gallery

The story of Salts Mill shows that in an industry - and an economic system - ripe with exploitation and insecurity, it is possible to do better. Salts Mill has been able to provide, then and now, "better work" and a measure of stability for the people who work here. I think the Mill has also been vital to building and sustaining the local community through time.

Neither the Salts nor the Silvers could, or wanted to, change ‘the system,’ but they were determined to rise beyond accepted practice at the time and risk a lot to create something new and visionary that benefitted not just them but their communities too. Instead of being resigned to the status quo they got up and did something that made a difference. And their successes were achieved through their own hard work together with that of many, many other people. That’s an inspiring story.

The Yorkshire Post announcing the new display, just in in time for Saltaire Arts Trail! Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe, Yorkshire Post

You can find The Work of Salts on the 3rd floor of Salts Mill, in the People & Process Gallery.

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