The city of Bradford seems to be going through something of an artistic resurgence. Already the home of the National Media Museum, it’s recently been voted UK City of Culture 2025 (beating Southampton, Durham and Wrexham) and the North’s largest literature festival is shortly to start in the city from 24 June to 3 July “exploring words, discovering worlds”.
Quietly nearby the upper floor of a huge former Victorian woollen mill in Saltaire has become the new home of a remarkable work by world renowned British artist David Hockney.
At 90.75 metres long “A Year In Normandie” is his biggest ever picture. This vibrant frieze records Nature at work in his French garden and was entirely created using an iPad.
Taking his lead from the famous 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, Hockney has created a walk-around painting taking the viewer on a journey through the changing seasons.
This installation at Salts Mill is its UK debut after being transferred very carefully from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. He wanted it to be seen internationally first – but I suspect his heart is in Yorkshire which is where it will hang until the Autumn.
David also chose this city as he was taught here in the 1950’s and consequently became part of the “Bradford Mafia”.
He studied at the local College of Art and his three student friends were John Loker, Norman Stevens and David Oxtoby. I know this as the latter is my godfather.
I have never met Mr Oxtoby except as a baby in this picture. He’s in the centre leaning forward. David was on my mother’s side of the family and there was a fall out over property when I was a child. I never understood it. So I tried to contact him a few years ago to find out – but he wasn’t having any.
I don’t know what happened then but do remember it reduced my mother to tears and she wouldn’t discuss it either. Now it’s just unexplained history and fading photographs.
I console myself by hoping he might have been proud I made a stab at being a decent person and forging a career using music and words as my palate. But I will never know the truth. So instead I satisfy myself by trying to understand the man through his work.
Oxtoby’s Rockers was first published in 1978. He painted and drew from photographs the rock gods and music icons of his era because he loved their style – and others loved his. Today his work isn’t as well known as his famous friend but is recognised as being an integral part of the British Pop Art movement and that talent is still used to teach art students today.
Back in 1967 the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith referred to them as The Bradford Mafia because “every time I turn around a major exhibition’s coming on and it’s always one of you lot. You’re the f****** Bradford Mafia”. It stuck.
The reality was all of them were penniless students and lived at home with their parents. When they played poker they’d club together to put thrupence each to a hand. If they won, it would be put to one side for a trip to the Lake District.
As young men, Oxtoby bought Norman and David their first pints. His mother sewed a big pocket into his coat so he could carry a sketchbook. As an impoverished student Hockney wandered through Bradford wearing a striped 1930’s suit and high starched collars pushing a pram full of paints and an easel – destined for greatness.
But fortune did not look kindly on them all.
Norman Stevens was disabled by polio as a child. Receiving deserved recognition of his work when elected as an Academician in 1983, he died only five years later aged 51.
The local art critic of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus wrote an obituary which included the observation: “The gruff exterior of this Yorkshireman belied a volatile and sometimes difficult temperament. Stevens was by turns touchy, argumentative even irascible. But his friends will remember the fierceness of his loyalties and personal affection as he was also the kindest of men, tireless in his concern and efforts in a good cause, whether for a friend in difficulties, an artist neglected or for the public good”.
The fourth member of the Bradford Mafia is John Loker.
Born in Leeds in 1938, he now lives quietly aged 84 with his artist partner Emily Mayer in East Anglia. His sources of inspiration are varied and have included NASA imagery and metaphysical reflections on space and time. His art is abstract, contemporary and difficult although I suspect if you were to share a coffee with him he’d be smashing.
If I could sit them around a table now, I’d probably find they rather like being described as “difficult”. Seventy years after they sat in class together I imagine they would even consider it a badge of honour.
I’m now a godfather myself. Adam is a lawyer and has just become a father. I’m very proud of the way he’s found his way and he knows I’m not a stranger. I think that’s important.
There is also a story to tell – not just about the creation of Salts Mill by Sir Titus Salt and the World Heritage Site it subsequently became – but about the artistic vision of the man who rescued it from the bulldozer, Jonathan Silver.
Both were businessmen who through sheer determination became philanthropists and achieved their goals in extraordinary ways which echo to this day.
Salt strove for decent working conditions, education, healthcare and housing for his workers at a time when this was quite rare. As a result Silver wanted to preserve his memory and do this by making great art free for everyone.
“A Year In Normandie” is on view in the roof space at Saltaire Mill until 18th September. Entry is free. In heaven, Salt and Silver are shaking hands and smiling. Job done.