Situated on Valley Drive, the building constructed as the International Wool Secretariat (now home to the firm Optident) is of huge artistic importance due to the amazing bas-relief, The Story of Wool, which surrounds the former lecture theatre.
The relief, by the artist and sculptor William George Mitchell (b.1925) is the first he made using bronze-faced glass fibre, a material he was involved in developing during the 1960’s. It seems incredible that many of us in Ilkley have been unaware of this building for so long – the artist himself describes it as a site of great significance due to the fact that it is a “stand alone structure related to one of the most important companies in the world at the time”.
The International Wool Secretariat and textiles in Ilkley
The IWS was founded in 1937 and worked with textile companies, designers and retailers to promote use and export of Australian wool. During the 1940’s and 50’s offices were established in various European countries – in 1964 the IWS began to use their Woolmark logo and throughout the 1960’s the company continued to expand both in terms of size and profit.
The IWS building in Ilkley was built during this period. In the late nineties after the IWS had become the Woolmark company, operations and HQ were moved to Melbourne, Australia.
It is interesting that the IWS chose to open a site in Ilkley. It seems an unusual place for such a large international company to open a centre. Whatever the reasons for doing so it is true that Ilkley has long had a place in the textile industry – as early as 1378 Ilkley had a fulling mill, and as in many rural communities during the eighteenth century, production of textiles flourished in Ilkley as an alternative to agriculture. To begin with locally produced wool provided the basis for the industry – later, in 1787 a cotton mill was built on the site where Wells House now stands.
Interestingly many of Ilkley’s grand Victorian houses were built by wealthy businessmen from Leeds and Bradford who had made their fortunes from the production of textiles. Perhaps the most likely reason that the IWS was built in Ilkley was that by the end of the Second World War , Ilkley had become synonymous with wool as a result of it having been used as an administrative centre for wool production during the War. Wells House near the moor was chosen as a base for this activity in 1939. So on reflection, Ilkley was maybe not such a strange choice of site after all! Indeed William Mitchell is known for his emphasis on local themes in his work and his detailed research into the areas where his art will be installed, – his knowledge of the importance of Yorkshire in the history of British textiles and his belief that for a long time the county was responsible for keeping the whole country afloat in terms of the economy, shows through in his work at the IWS and he is passionate still about the importance of the building and of Ilkley’s part in the story of wool.
William Mitchell and The Story of Wool
Mitchell is an extraordinary sculptor, artist and designer with strong opinions and an infectious enthusiasm, who has worked extensively on large scale murals and public artworks – most notably during the 60’s and 70’s when he was at the forefront of experimentation which encouraged the use of new materials in building and sculpture. Concrete, plaster, metals and glass were becoming increasingly popular and the IWS in Ilkley is a fanstastic example of this ground – breaking work that was so unusual at the time.
William Mitchell was born in 1925 in Maida Vale, London and studied at the Royal College of Art. He went on to work as a designer/artist for the London County Council Architects department and was responsible for many decorative works for the council’s housing estates. Indeed Mitchell has usually preferred to work directly with architects and contractors and is known for his lack of interest in the world of the “celebrity artist”, shunning the modern art establishment and it’s obsession with money and fame. He describes his work at the time thus – “some of the projects I did were good, some were reasonable and most were controversial – none, however, broke the bank.” He tells that at the time the Wool Secretariat was built, his priorities were thus – firstly cost “with a capital “C”, secondly the time it would take to produce, and lastly the subject matter. This was how things were done when you worked closely with architects, developers and builders he explains, as they spoke always of cost per square foot and that if you were going to get anywhere you had to speak to them on their terms. Given the often pretentious attitude of some artists today and the flowery , unintelligible language frequently used to describe modern works of art, it is decidedly refreshing to listen to William Mitchell’s practical and to the point views on his works and methods.
It would seem that only recently has Mitchell’s work started to gain recognition and acceptance after being unappreciated by the art establishment for so long (whether or not he is pleased about this recognition is another matter!). Despite an impressive catalogue of listed works which includes projects at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Clifton Cathedral and Harrods in London as well as commissions for public spaces as far flung as Hawaii and Qatar, William Mitchell has not received the acclaim he most likely deserves. The materials in which he worked are often not understood and due to the experimental nature of his work unfortunately much of it has been vulnerable to neglect or alteration. We are lucky that the Wool Secretariat work is so well preserved, – Mitchell points out that it may be that it’s out of the way location has contributed to it’s survival.
The IWS was opened in 1968 at a time when wool was very much in fashion, and designed by local architect Richard Collick, who William Mitchell describes as “very brave” for using his unusual work to decorate the building at a time when such art was so new and possibly controversial. Initially the building consisted of the entrance area/lecture theatre and eastern “wing”. Mitchell was commissioned to create a mural to surround the outside of what was then a lecture theatre, a mural whose subject was to be wool. This was his first piece on such a large scale, one of the reasons he cites for the importance of the building, and was produced in stages. First a model was made, then a mould which was covered with three coats of gel containing molecular bronze, eight to ten coats of fibreglass and finally many layers of gelcoat resin. Thirdly the moulds were removed and the panels fixed to a metal frame which was then pulled up and secured onto the building.
The theme of textiles lends itself perfectly to Mitchell’s experimental techniques and interest in pattern and texture. The bold, stylised forms of the sheep on the front panel complement the more abstract side panels which depict images of microscopic wool fibres and some of the patterns that can be created using wool. The whole piece has obvious roots in the tradition of craftsmanship both in terms of subject and the physicality of the mural with its rough forms and textural qualities. It brings to mind the rocks, earth and natural landscape around us.
Though the building is not open to the public the mural can clearly be seen from Valley Drive and if you wish to have a closer look, the gates are opened midweek during office hours for access to the car park. Unfortunately there is no access at the weekend.
Ilkley Civic Society applied for the sculptural panels to be listed in December 2014. The application was supported by many local and national individuals and organisations including Ilkley Art Trail, the PMSA (Public Monuments and Sculpture Association) and William Mitchell himself. They were assessed by Historic England and deemed worthy of listed status in December 2015. On 22nd January 2016 the listing was announced by Historic England, along with 40 other newly listed works of the Post War era, to coincide with the opening of the exhibition OUT THERE – POST WAR PUBLIC ART at Somerset House, London. Part of a bigger project , entitled UTOPIA, which celebrates 500 years since Thomas Moore’s famous work, the exhibition hopes to bring the work of this period to a wider audience and encourage appreciation of these often overlooked artworks.
Thanks To William and Joy Mitchell, for all their help and enthusiasm