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The Story of Wool – Grade II listed Public Art Sculpture in Ilkley

One of my first jobs after leaving University was for the Clothing Industry Training Board (CAPITB), which used to be based in Pudsey, working in the PR department. I had a couple of visits to the International Wool Secretariat based on Valley Drive in Ben Rhydding near Ilkley, who were responsible for developing the Woolmark logo.

The thing that I remember about my visits was the imposing artwork above the door which showed a horned ram. I have to admit it had not crossed my mind for the last 30 years until driving back from a lockdown tip run to Ilkley, I returned home the back way, a route I never would normally take.

There on the left hand side of the road, I caught site of the sculpture and so pulled over and nipped into the complex to take some pictures and re-acquaint myself with the sculpture.

Returning home I decided to investigate the story behind the artwork and thought I would share my findings.

The International Wool Secretariat had built the complex in 1968 to promote the Wool industry in the UK, but the development is now high quality office space under the guise of the International Development Centre.

The mural sitting above the door was commissioned for the building to represent what the International Wool Secretariat was all about and create an eye catching centrepiece for the buildings frontage. It was created by William Mitchell and was called "The Story of Wool".

The artwork was recognised as a land mark sculpture in 2016, as one of 41 Public pieces of art including pieces by Yorkshire sculptures such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Historic England have given the sculpture protected status awarding it Grade II listed status.

There has been a fear in the art world that many public pieces of art have been sold or destroyed by councils, so providing protected status means that the pieces will be available for future generations to see.

Director of Listing at Historic England, Roger Bowdler, said:

“These sculptures were commissioned and created for everybody and have become a precious national collection of art which we can all share. They enrich our lives, bring art to everyone and deserve celebration. We have worked with the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, Tate, and the Twentieth Century Society throughout this project to ensure our most special public art is protected and continues to enhance our public spaces.”

Born in 1925, William Mitchell was one of the leading public artists in the post war period and built up a reputation for creating large, impressive artworks out of more mundane materials such as concrete or glass re-enforced plastic (GRP).

The Story of Wool is actually produced in bronze-faced glass re-enforced plastic and covers the front of an old lecture theatre in the building. William Mitchell had used this media the year before when producing the doors of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool.

The main murals bold design shows a ram and interlocking ewe’s, with the side panels showing the different manufacturing process and scientific analysis of the structure of wool under a microscope. Being based in the West Riding, this is particularly apt as historically it is the centre of England’s wool industry.

They were made in Mitchell's studio in London and transported to Ilkley for fixing on completion of the building.

If you are in Ilkley it is worth a detour – as it is quite a stunning piece of public art.

1 Comment

Feb 20, 2021

Thanks Tim, most interesting. My dad worked in Bradford in Burnett Street ( now called little Germany) for Vincent Hall & Sons Ltd; and I worked there and in Shipley in blending and scouring of wool as a teenager. Tough work I recall!

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