When Industry and Art Meet

  • by Vickie, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

This week’s post returns to the theme of an Industrial Leeds – specifically the title of ‘City of Industry’ – a name that is also title to the current exhibition devised and co-curated by local illustrator Drew Millward in the gallery space at Colours May Vary.

After previously touching on the quirkier side of local industry in our last industrial blog post via an Automatic Bacon Slicer, we’ve become interested in the idea of the individuals and lesser-known establishments that colour our local economy and history. Paying a visit to Millward’s City of Industry has got us thinking about Leeds’ rich creative heritage…

“Dark Satanic mills, green and pleasant hills” – these words by William Blake, an industry unto himself, accompany the exhibition and compliment the works on display. This is a great choice not only for painting a vivid scene of life in early Industrial Britain, but because Blake himself was also a prolific painter and printmaker.

Gallery space at Colours May Vary

The exhibition boasts an impressive line-up of creative contributors from Leeds and further afield to respond to the theme, in which community and craft is explored through personal narratives, as well as the character of localities, buildings, and individuals.

Nods to our industrial past and present are illustrated through familiar faces. Michael Driver’s work of a sooty-faced miner is cheerfully wistful, and the Leeds-savvy will recognise Matthew Hodson’s ‘Barrel Man’ – a painting of the statue that stands outside the St. John’s Centre and commemorates the twinning of Leeds and German town Dortmund. The contribution of Drew Millward’s portrait of engineering enthusiast and TV personality Fred Dibnah offers a deeper exploration into our changing relationship towards heritage, with ‘Destroy’ & ‘Preserve’ serving as a comment on Dibnah’s career, with Millward adding – “It was always interesting to see the evolution of his TV work, from what was essentially a documentary about knocking down buildings, to a much more educational approach, focusing on restoration and preservation.”

Works by Matthew Hodson, Michael Driver and Drew Millward

This idea of the ‘evolution’ in shifting attitudes towards the preservation of heritage keeps cropping up – some works act as a celebratory tribute of traditional crafts used to this day, such as Anne Peaker’s homage to Yorkshire’s textile industry, while other pieces are nostalgic. Regardless, the real poignancy of the exhibition lay in the collective graphic art prints that adorn the walls of Colours May Vary – they reflect a printing tradition that stretches back 300 years to the first known printer in Leeds, John Hirst, printer of the Leeds Mercury, who set in motion a technology that continues to this day.

Here at Leeds Central Library, we have a large archive of printed theatre playbills, periodicals and ephemera, spanning back over two hundred years, and we celebrated this recently with our Prints and Playbills Day. You may’ve seen examples from the collections in a previous post – they fit into the rich tradition of printing in Leeds that City of Industry alludes to, and one of the most industrious printing companies in England started life printing Leeds theatre playbills at the turn of the last century…

Waddington’s is best known for its printed playing cards and board games, and was notably the UK publisher of Parker Brothers’ Monopoly and Cluedo, making the company a household name in its own right. Founded by John Waddington of Leeds in 1896, the company had a huge print house on Wakefield Road, and several other factories around Leeds. At it’s height, Waddington’s employed around 4,000 Leeds workers.

views from the Wakefield Road junction, showing the size of the Waddington's factory in the background, 1930s
Views from the Wakefield Road junction, showing the size of the Waddington’s factory in the background, 1930s

In the 1920s, Waddington’s was becoming the foremost poster printers in the country, and were commissioned by leading national companies to print advertisements. Always happy to take on a challenge, Waddington’s were approached to print what was at the time the ‘largest ever poster’, produced for the British Empire Exhibition, held in Wembley in 1924. Printed on twenty-four sheets that were then pasted together, it measured a total of 10 feet by 40 feet, and required half a ton of ink for its run of 3,000 copies.

Waddington’s ‘largest ever poster’

Similar to the landscapes in City of Industry featuring mills and collieries now defunct, Waddington’s has all but disappeared from the Leeds map, with its landmark neon lights and red brick factory that stood on Wakefield Road being replaced by a call centre in 1999, after the company sold to Hasbro in the 90s.

With hindsight, it’s easy to think back to times of British manufacture and mourn a loss of industry – and whilst the UK has lost a lot of its manufacture, recent government surveys suggest the UK creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion per year, and growing. The dip in large-scale production in comparison to the last hundred years or so may mean artisanal trades are harder to spot, but not that they aren’t still practised.

With recent shifts in the last decade back towards an emphasis on local and hand-made goods, perhaps it may no longer be apt to judge our worth and local identity on factory numbers and large-scale production, but in the individual specialist skillsets and knowledge that can make up and define a local area – the collectives, small businesses, and practitioners – and the artists in City of Industry are making a very good case for that.

City of Industry runs until Wednesday 30 September at Colours May Vary, Munro House, Duke Street, Leeds, LS9 8AG.

Some relevant resources in our Leeds Libraries collection include:
www.leodis.net – our collection of historic photographs
The Waddingtons Story (Local and Family History, L 338.7 WAD)
Leeds: The Centenary Art Exhibition (Local and Family History, YP 709.42 SHE)
Creative Passions: The People of Outer East Leeds (Art Library, 700 LEE)

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