13

Salts Mill

Kitty North

  • Suggestion
Salts Mill, Saltaire, Yorkshire 1997. Oil on 2 canvases 48x120” overall © David Hockney. Photo credit: Prudence Cuming Associates.

I love this building because I love what it represented when it opened in 1853, and what it represents now: hope. Hope for the better. Hope for social change. Belief in the power of culture and creativity. 

Salts Mill is a gigantic Victorian palace of industry just outside Bradford. This beautiful building, gleaming in golden sandstone against the verdant slopes of Shipley Glen and Baildon Moor, was the vision of Sir Titus Salt. He also built the adjoining model village of Saltaire, offering a better life for his workers. In its day, the mill was at the cutting edge of British textile manufacturing.

By the mid 1980s the industry had all but vanished. Salts stood empty, heading for dereliction. People wondered if it should be knocked down.

Creating this place was the act of a lion: Sir Titus. Reviving it required another lion: my friend Jonathan Silver. Jonathan knew the wrecking ball wasn’t the answer. He bought the place and got his sleeves rolled up pronto. The first thing he did was to create the 1853 Gallery, ripping up the asphalt to reveal the flagstone floors and filling the cast-iron columned ground floor with paintings by his friend and fellow Bradfordian, David Hockney. Vases were packed with heavily perfumed Casablanca lilies. Opera boomed from Bose speakers. I can safely say we’d never seen the like.

“....Jonathan’s vision was one of regeneration through the arts.”

The magnificent Salts Mill Factory
Salts Mill Factory
The gallery at Salts Mill ©Salts mill
The gallery at Salts Mill ©Salts mill
The famous Salts Diner at Salts Mill ©Salts mill
The book shop at Salts Mill ©Salts mill
The book shop at Salts Mill ©Salts mill

In 1987 the idea of filling a dinosaur of a building with contemporary art was not the default back-to-life solution it is today – but Jonathan’s vision was one of regeneration through the arts. The gallery became a beacon. The message: something very exciting is happening here. It attracted people who were looking for business premises, including tech start-ups that would go on to great international success. Salts was the backdrop against which they wanted their future to happen.

Then, aged 47, Jonathan became gravely ill. He told his dear friend David to paint the mill and show how big it was. The magnificent, jewel-coloured oil stretches across two canvases, radiating beauty, love and sorrow.

Today Salts is run by Jonathan’s family.

Salts and Saltaire are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The sense of the past is so prevalent – shaped by the human hand, worn down (or should I say sculpted?) by almost 170 years of industrious Yorkshire humans and Yorkshire weather. But it is the energy of now and next that really hits you here. This energy is fuelled by the combination of culture and commerce.  Salts is buzzing with art, design, retail and manufacturing. Some people come for a day out; others for a day on the production line or in the office. It is a symbiotic existence. You come away uplifted and inspired, with beauty in your heart. Everything here is made with love.

See more nominated buildings