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The Art of Industry

Dig down into Oxford's past with a self-guided walk around the city's industrial heritage sites

Amongst the collection there’s also a teapot that looks like an oil refinery – Flickendorf’s – fit for a steampunk retelling of Alice in Wonderland

You probably don’t think of Oxford as a hive of industry, overshadowed as it is by ideas and intellect and the demands of the university, rather than mines or satanic mills. However, if you have an afternoon to spare, you can dig down into the city’s past with a self-guided walk around Oxford’s industrial heritage sites, as part of Discovering Britain, a Royal Geological Society initiative to explore and promote stories of the country’s landscapes. Delve into the city’s past with local historian Liz Woolley and see bricks and bridges, windows and waterwheels that you never knew where there.

Brewing and malting were two of Oxford’s oldest industries and there were many breweries in this neck of the woods - or rather in St Thomas’ Street which was traditionally a working class district, situated outside the city wall and close to the canal wharf from which supplies were delivered  and the Thames, a source of both power and water.


Strolling the streets, I discover that the building that now houses Modern Art Oxford, tucked behind Marks and Spencers on Pembroke Street, was built for Hanley’s City Brewery in 1888 as a square room and stores. Here fermentation was carried out in ‘squares’, which were open-topped vessels made of stone or slate, bolted together and sealed with cement. Inside, Modern Art Oxford’s contemporary art programme is presented from between cast iron pillars marked ‘Lucy and Co’, the name of Oxford’s main iron foundry which flourished alongside the Jericho canal until early this century, and is mentioned in Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford.

Industry is also the inspiration for an exhibition of contemporary sculpture in the Cornerstone Arts Centre, Didcot, this month, as they showcase the work of sculptors who are passionate about iron casting as part of their practice, including Oxfordshire Artweeks’ Wez Jacobs.

‘Industry to Art’ was inspired by an exploration of engine parts and old foundry patterns at the Swindon STEAM Museum of the Great Western Railway, just six miles west of Oxfordshire, the study of these historical objects inspiring creative ideas, and providing a wonderful fusion of industrial engineering and new artworks within a modern gallery setting, within sight of another of the original Great Western Railway stations.

Developed from original wooden patterns for locomotive parts and with other components made from wood, foam and found objects, the sculptures were cast in iron using a cupola furnace, a cylindrical melting device, at The Bullpen foundry near Abingdon, which was filled with iron, coke and limestone. The patterns were used to create moulds, which were bolted together and ‘gated’, with a runner system through which molten metal could flow. They poured the metal into the moulds until they filled, and left them to cool. When the moulds were opened they revealed the cast iron shapes, some of which feature casts from original GWR patterns, and these were ‘fettled’ and ‘chased’ with traditional tools and techniques until they were finished.

Another local sculptor who is inspired by industrial archaeology is Newbury-based Oxfordshire Artweeks’ artist Nigel Williams who is a member of the Oxford Sculptors Group and has been making sculptures for 25 years.

After a childhood ruled by Lego and Meccano, Nigel was originally was a car designer, working at the crossover between engineering and creativity and developing creative software in the early days of computer-aided design and 3d-modelling on screen. With a masters in 3D animation, he also created panoramic virtual tours of giant industrial sites such as oil platforms out at sea, such as the Hibernia the world's largest oil platform located close to where the Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

A regular visitor to Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science, with its old radios, cameras and telescopes, Nigel is particularly taken the Winslow machine, a static electricity generating machine made of brass with a massive Perspex disc and suede cushions which, when turned, causes a spark to jump between two points. In its day it was inexplicable but today illustrates well the art of moving science forward.

Williams is also a long-time fan of Heath Robinson and Punch cartoonist Rowland Emett who was famous in the 1950s for his whimsical automatons and provided several contraptions for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, filmed at the windmill in Turville on the Oxfordshire: Berkshire border.

Williams’ ideas have taken flight along the lines of fanciful factories, old technology and amazing machines, and as an artist he creates curious copper gadgets, mad geometry and fun sculpture for the house and garden. A current theme is the “fantastic embellishment” of antique and recognisable domestic artefacts, creating sculptural pieces including some superhero-type things with a humour-based fantasy element such as a superhero’s blow torch. Some of these sculptural inventions even come with ‘operations manuals’, annotated diagrams that are half-truth and half fantasy, invoking nostalgia, humour and a touch of magic.

You can see work by Williams in the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park until October 31st and he’s recently finished a rocket, Jules Verne style, the most efficient method of fertiliser distribution which could be the first ever agricultural use of ballistics? Williams takes pleasure in making pretty things from spent armaments turning shell cases are into flowers and plant forms that would grace any garden, which seems appropriate as it was as a result of armaments production during World War 1 that welding kit and expertise entered the world of modern European art, opening the door for constructed rather than modelled or carved 3D pieces. 

Amongst the collection there’s also a teapot that looks like an oil refinery – Flickendorf’s – fit for a steampunk retelling of Alice in Wonderland.

Sophie Thompson, another metal sculptor in the Wychwoods, has also been inspired by Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, welding sculptures of the Dodo and the Gryphon. And while Sophie recreates the anatomy of animals, including two life-size shire horses which are a permanent feature at Kilkenny Lane Country Park in West Oxfordshire, her inspiration comes from the intriguingly-shaped pieces of scrap metal she finds on farms and in the rural environment in which she grew up, a landscape that still despite the county’s industrial heritage still constitutes the majority of Oxfordshire today.

 - Esther Lafferty, Festival Director of Oxfordshire Artweeks