Mr Arkwright - water-powered art installation at Cromford Mills

The installation in situ at Cromford Mills

The installation in situ at Cromford Mills - Credit: Archant

An innovative new art installation by sculptor Jo Fairfax is currently inspiring visitors to Cromford Mills. Catherine Roth reports...

Visitors gather at the launch of the installation

Visitors gather at the launch of the installation - Credit: Archant

A new art installation at Cromford Mills draws inspiration from the past to create a contemporary interactive sculpture that is delighting visitors of all ages. Using pedal and water power, visitors can harness nature's energy to create their own drawings.

It is one of three major art installations commissioned by the Great Place Scheme to provide creative responses to the location and heritage of some of the key sites within the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site (DVMWHS). Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, the Scheme has been designed to inspire a sense of belonging and pride in the World Heritage Site.

Jo Fairfax, a Leicestershire based artist, was commissioned to create the first artwork. The result is Mr Arkwright, a cycle- and water-powered automatic drawing machine. Jo took inspiration from the waterframe, Sir Richard Arkwright's cotton spinning machine. Powered by water, it could spin numerous threads simultaneously and significantly increased cotton production. Jo says, 'Mr Arkwright is a response to Richard Arkwright's work here and how his mind worked, as far as I can tell. I have been coming to Cromford Mills for years and with each visit I was taken by the work he did here and how he combined the harnessing of natural energy and converting energy through machinery. It was such a contemporary way of thinking. I'm not celebrating the capitalist side of Arkwright's work, but his ingenuity and what he achieved at Cromford Mills.' Jo's contemporary artwork alludes to his fascination with the extreme power of energy which can be used to produce something as delicate as cotton - the drawing produced is a lightly pencilled heart shape.

Jo was also keen to create a piece that young people in particular would be able to engage with. In the 18th century Richard Arkwright employed children to work in his mill. Jo wanted to contrast this past employment in the mills by creating something today's young people could enjoy, whilst promoting health and wellbeing. Indeed, all donations from Mr Arkwright will go towards inspiring young people in the heritage of the DVMWHS.

The drawing machine

The drawing machine - Credit: Archant

A converted tandem is the driving force behind the installation. Its front wheel has been removed and its back wheel replaced by an electric one. The current generated through pedalling sends water through a labyrinth of clear acrylic piping until it reaches and drives the waterwheel, similar in design to those that once existed at Cromford Mills to power the machinery albeit on a far smaller scale. This in turn rotates the axle, which is attached to two wires - one affecting the horizontal and one the vertical. Combining them both causes the attached pencil to move and the drawing to begin.

Jo's background is not in engineering but in sculpture, followed by training in holography at the Royal College of Art. However, he has always been fascinated by how things work including natural forces and gravity. Jo says, 'When I was 10 the house we lived in was so cold that I didn't want to get out of bed to open the curtains in the morning - so I made myself an automatic curtain opening machine! I used an empty tin of Marvel powdered milk as the weight and created a series of pulleys connected to both curtains.' Jo continues, 'Nature is the best way to learn, whether it's the unfurling of a leaf or the hydraulics of a spider's leg. It is the process of liquid going through a spider's leg that makes it move and this same process is used in the drawing machine. I'm doing exactly what I learnt when I was 12!' he smiles.

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Jo's work as a public artist ranges from sculptural lighting, architectural glass, public squares and public art to sculptural seating, digital and interactive film and lighting for dance. A few of his many commissions include designing the new railway station in Colchester, producing 33 metres of animated glass for the new Northern Ballet building in Leeds and designing interactive lighting for the courtyard at Birmingham Children's Hospital.

Jo responds to every site individually, ensuring each artwork is unique. To bring his designs to life he assembles a team with specific experiences so they often differ from project to project.

A close-up of the installation

A close-up of the installation - Credit: Archant

For Mr Arkwright, Jo worked with the University of Nottingham, sharing his concept with them so they were then able to carry out various calculations to work out the practicalities of turning the design into reality. This included which type of pump to use, how much water was required, how high the acrylic arches through which the water passes needed to be, and how the bike should best be set up.

The complexity of the project meant it wasn't without its challenges. Jo says, 'Designing anything outdoors is a challenge. Our budget also limited us on the thickness of clear acrylic we could use and, as we wanted to use as few supports as possible, we had to think about how we could retain the visual elegance and poetry of the artwork whilst still making sure it was structurally sound.'

When the designs - complete with accurate measurements - were complete, Jo took them to 'Makers' of Nottingham, a fabrications company which turns bespoke designs into actual products. Makers constructed Mr Arkwright in their workshop before testing and tweaking it. Then the sculpture was taken apart and reassembled at Cromford Mills in time for a launch event at the end of July. Jo was joined by Councillor Barry Lewis, Chair of the DVMWHS Partnership and Leader of Derbyshire County Council, Simon Wallwork, CEO of the Arkwright Society at Cromford Mills, and Adam Kenway of the Vitus Pro Cycling Team and a former national hill climbing champion, to unveil the artwork to invited guests and a gathered audience.

Simon Wallwork said, 'The work is a fantastic example of where science, engineering and art come together to produce something quite unusual and unique which can be experienced at different levels. It is also a great example of how art can be used to help interpret our heritage.'

Hugh James, Arts Council England, Simon Wallwork, CEO, Arkwright Society, Adam Kenway, Vitus Pro Cycling, Jo Fairfax, Cllr...

Hugh James, Arts Council England, Simon Wallwork, CEO, Arkwright Society, Adam Kenway, Vitus Pro Cycling, Jo Fairfax, Cllr Barry Lewis - Credit: Archant

Mr Arkwright will be at Cromford Mills until November when it will tour other sites along the Derwent Valley. However, whilst the concept will remain the same, Jo and the rest of the team are already thinking of new ways they can interpret it - including using it to power small lights in the winter months. Richard Arkwright's legacy clearly lives on in this valley of innovation. u

For further details about 'Mr Arkwright' visit

Jo Fairfax at the launch of the drawing machine

Jo Fairfax at the launch of the drawing machine - Credit: Archant

The installation in production

The installation in production - Credit: Archant

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