Salt and Silver

If fortune favours the brave then there was no one more courageous than the late great entrepreneur Jonathan Silver. John Fisher looks at the life of the artistic visionary who regenerated Salts Mill and put the Yorkshire town of Saltaire back on the international map

To the people of Saltaire he was a knight in shining armour who arrived just in the nick of time.

When a 37-year-old Jonathan Silver bought the woollen mill built by Sir Titus Salt in the 19th century, it was derelict and dilapidated. But his vision and inspiration gave new hope for the future.

Now his story has finally been committed to film and last week 150 people gathered at Salts Mill to view this snapshot of his life, which will now forever be intertwined with that of Sir Titus himself.

The industrialist and philanthropist founded Salts Mill in the 1850s as a purpose-built Victorian industrial mill and township which thrived for a century manufacturing high quality textiles.

In the 1950s and 60s the cloth industry felt the effects of foreign competition and although in the 1970s Salts still produced 4m worth of cloth a year, mainly for export, things started to grind to a halt in 1986 and the mill closed.

Meanwhile Jonathan was born in Bradford in 1949, not far from Salt's home. As a pupil at Bradford Grammar School he was to show great entrepreneurial flair by visiting local auction rooms on his afternoons off to leave commissions on antique furniture.

His mother Irene, who lives in Alwoodley, Leeds, recalls how he made his first windfall – at just 12-years-old.

"He had this idea of buying new-laid eggs from a local farm and taking them round the neighbourhood to sell," she said. "I collected them from the farmer and Jonathan insisted he leave a few feathers on the trays so people could see they were fresh. He did well and it soon became a cottage industry."

Jonathan studied textiles and art at Leeds University, which came in useful when running a chain of highly fashionable menswear shops.

It was after a 20-month family grand tour of the world, which he and his wife Maggie financed by selling everything they owned, that Jonathan heard about the sale of Salts Mill.

He quickly made an offer which was accepted and threw himself into a schedule of refurbishment and regeneration.

Jonathan had struck up a life-long friendship with artist David Hockney and one of the striking features of Salts Mill is the 1853 Gallery devoted to the artist's work, which Jonathan set up with his own collection of 55 Hockney pictures. The gallery now houses the largest collection of the artist's paintings in the world.

Due to Jonathan's vision a marked increase in confidence and stability was to return to the village of Saltaire with new businesses pouring into the town accompanied by new residents. Today Salts Mill receives thousands of visitors from all over the world.

In 1996 Prince Charles visited the mill and marvelled at the clever combination of trade, tradition and culture. An award of world heritage status by Unesco followed in 2001.

In 1985 Jonathan was diagnosed with cancer and although he fought it bravely, working right until the end, he died in 1997. His untimely death shocked everyone.

The film's writer, producer and director David Weber became interested in Salts Mill when he moved into the neighbourhood around the time Jonathan bought the mill.

"I watched the regeneration schedule closely as I was always interested in history, and the mill has such a rich history, I was drawn to the unfolding story.

"I admired what Jonathan was doing; without his involvement it was highly probable that the mill would have been knocked down. So the chronicle of these two giants, Salt and Silver, who were very similar because both were prepared to take incredible gambles, was very appealing. I hope the film manages to portray their stories in an accessible way."

Weber uses computer generated imagery and video footage that gives the film a contemporary feeling and brings out the motives behind the two men who created the Saltaire of today.

Irene said Jonathan was a very private person but she was prepared to see photographs and stills of him in the film. What touched her deeply, however, was the video of him striding about the mill in the early days of its transformation and then appearing with Prince Charles and David Hockney, footage she had never seen before.

"I just wasn't prepared for that and it moved me to tears."

The Story of Saltaire, priced 9.99, is now available on DVD. Call: 01274 531163.

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