Village that went through the mill: Saltaire then and now

IF anyone had told Ian Beesley in 1985 that Saltaire would one day be a world heritage site recognised by the United Nations, he would likely have dropped his Leica.

The former model village of the Victorian textile magnate and philanthropist Sir Titus Salt still then clattered to the sound of the looms, but what had been a cacophony had become just a murmur. Before much longer, it would fall silent.

Photographer Ian Beesley has been working with Barnsley poet Ian McMillan on From Salt to Silver, a visually stunning installation in the roof space at Salts Mill

Yesterday, with the same camera slung around his neck, Mr Beesley unfurled new prints, two-and-a-half metres wide, of the pictures of the village mill he had taken back then. In the vast roof space of the old building, nothing else was left.

But Salts Mill, unlike most of the other temples to the West Riding’s industrial revolution, is still a hive of industry. Books have replaced bobbins on the second floor, and instead of hemp there is Hockney.

“This is your northern powerhouse, right here,” said Mr Beesley, a celebrated photographer who began his working life as a labourer in another mill.

“It’s a shining example of what can be done, with determination and imagination. It’s everything the powerhouse should be.”

Photographer Ian Beesley has been working with Barnsley poet Ian McMillan on From Salt to Silver, a visually stunning installation in the roof space at Salts Mill

His new exhibition, opening today, compares his photographs of Salt’s Mill in the 1980s with the same spaces today. Both sets of pictures were taken with the same Leica camera and shot on black-and-white film.

But while the originals pictured a world that was fading from view, the new set celebrates the workspaces of the 21st century.

Salts Mill was rescued from dereliction by the late fashion and furniture entrepreneur Jonathan Silver, whose widow, Maggie, and daughter, Zoe, are behind today’s exhibition.

The mill is home now to a permanent display of work by the Bradford artist David Hockney, and to restaurants, shops and the technology companies Arris and Cimlogic.

Photographer Ian Beesley has been working with Barnsley poet Ian McMillan on From Salt to Silver, a visually stunning installation in the roof space at Salts Mill

Mr Beesley said: “When I was first commissioned to take pictures in the 1980s, the mill was smaller than it had been in its heyday but there were still three shifts. It was still a viable business.

“But then the order books were sold to another mill.”

He added: “No-one would have believed then that the whole village could be a heritage centre one day.”

Zoe Silver had spent months preparing for today’s opening of From Salt to Silver, in the old loft space of the mill.

Photographer Ian Beesley has been working with Barnsley poet Ian McMillan on From Salt to Silver, a visually stunning installation in the roof space at Salts Mill

At the preview yesterday, she said: “We knew from the outset that we had to have some massive pictures. Anything that looks big anywhere else seems tiny in this huge space.

“We have hung the giant prints from the Victorian iron rafters and used pallets and bits of scaffolding for the smaller pictures.

“It actually wasn’t that hard - despite its size, the ceiling height is quite low.”

At the weekend, Mr Beesley’s frequent collaborator, the Barnsley poet Ian McMillan, who has written new verses to accompany the photographs, will stage a live event among the prints.

Ms Silver said: “Although the pictures are huge, the verse is intimate and personal.”

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