Castleward’s new outdoor museum is a nod to Derby’s industrial past

A cluster of art chairs in Castleward

A cluster of art chairs in Castleward - Credit: Archant

The latest public art installation in the city has looked to the area’s industrial past for inspiration. Mike Smith reports

An art chair displaying the tools used by a coppersmith

An art chair displaying the tools used by a coppersmith - Credit: Archant

According to Denis O’ Connor, who is responsible for making the striking public art that has appeared recently in Castleward, this area, stretching from the Railway Station to the Intu Shopping Centre, played a key role for over 300 years in developing Derby into a ‘city of trades’.

The growth of silk manufacture in the locality in the 17th and 18th centuries was the trigger for the evolution of various associated industrial activities, including foundries, forges and woodyards. In subsequent years, the area saw the appearance of many other trades, such as printing, engraving, chairmaking, the manufacture of shoes and the construction of railway carriages. And in the midst of all this frenetic activity, there was a thriving residential community living in a compact maze of streets.

By the 20th century, silk manufacture had gone into decline and, one by one, Castleward’s great mills, casting workshops and forges began to disappear, but the final blow came with the closure, in 2010, of Bemrose and Sons’ printing and engraving works. An area that had made Derby a ‘city of trades’ became the sad symbol of a ‘city of lost trades’.

Recognising the need for wholesale revitalisation, Derby City Council chose Compendium Living as their partner for an ambitious scheme to use Castleward’s legacy of brownfield sites to create a new urban village. Regeneration work finally got underway in 2013 with the construction of 164 homes. Some of these new dwellings were offered for sale and others were advertised for rent or shared ownership. New retail, commercial and small business units were also provided. The next phase, which will provide 54 more homes, including low-rise apartments and duplex-style properties, is already underway, but the entire project, consisting of up to 800 homes and 35,000 square feet of commercial retail space, may take at least 15 years to complete.

Tools used by a leather tester

Tools used by a leather tester - Credit: Archant

Dave Bullock, Compendium Living’s managing director, is delighted with the positive response to the new homes that have already been built in the area, which are being seen as perfect for people who want to combine the benefits of city-centre living with the comfort and amenity of high-quality family housing. He says: ‘Working with Lovell Homes, our Joint Venture partners, our aim is to foster the growth of a vibrant new mixed-use neighbourhood, which will include retail stores, coffee shops, parks and a new primary school. In addition, the really important gateway into the city centre from the railway station, which had become very shabby, is being replaced by a tree-lined boulevard enlivened by exciting new public art to create a visual trail for residents, visitors and commuters.’

Master-planning for the boulevard, together with a scheme for landscaping a new public square in Castleward, is being carried out by HTA Design, who worked with QUAD, Derby City Council and Compendium Living to consider a number of public-art proposals designed to enhance the new boulevard. Their preferred scheme was submitted by Denis O’Connor and Bernadine Rutter of the Wirksworth-based firm Sculpture Works.

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When preparing their bid and developing their project, Denis and Bernadine worked initially with the Derby Local Studies Library, where they gained access to 17th, 18th and 19th century maps of Castleward, which provided a wealth of historical evidence about the area, in terms of its changing residential and industrial make-up over the years. These findings were supplemented by information from Derby Civic Society, the City Council and the city’s library, museum and art gallery. Bernardine held consultation meetings with various historical societies and community groups, and she also ran a number of visual art workshops with Castleward Nursery, disability groups and Derby College.

The result of this exhaustive research and consultation is ‘Revealing Castleward’, a unique public art installation, expertly crafted by Denis O’Connor, which consists of 20 stainless-steel ‘art chairs’, ranging in height from 50 cms to four metres. On the seat of each chair, there are bronze replicas of tools used in one of the traditional trades that were based in the area. All these replica sculptures were cast from artefacts borrowed from museums and from individuals who used to work in the area.

Bernadine Rutter in consultation with people in the community

Bernadine Rutter in consultation with people in the community - Credit: Archant

The bronze objects on the seats include replicas of tools employed by bookbinders, coppersmiths, leather testers, chairmakers and shoemakers, more properly called ‘cordwainers’. As Denis explains: ‘By bringing these artefacts from the inside to the outside, we have tried to create an ‘external museum’, where people walking along the new boulevard can explore the history of the Castleward area by reading, touching, interacting with and investigating the objects. Alongside the 20 art chairs, we have also installed six functional stainless-steel chairs, where people can sit, eat their lunch or talk to a colleague or friend.’

As well as being a very clever means of putting historic objects into a contemporary setting, the art chairs are intended as a reminder that Castleward played a crucial part in the growth of a city that has now become the fastest growing place in the country for wealth creation. The ‘domestic’ feel of the chairs also conveys a message that Castleward is now an urban village where people can choose to live and ‘feel at home’.

Tools used by a cordwainer

Tools used by a cordwainer - Credit: Archant