West Midlands-trained artist Falcon Hildred tells Richard McComb about a life's work documenting disappearing industrial landscapes.
Just about everything Falcon Hildred has drawn has been destroyed by the wrecker’s ball.
It is a quirk of Hildred’s work that if he has picked his subjects correctly they will have all but disappeared within a few years of being captured in his haunting watercolour drawings.
The 76-year-old artist, who grew up in Coventry and trained in Birmingham, has dedicated the past six decades of his life to recording the vanishing vistas and industrial minutiae of the 19th and 20th centuries. His drawings, which together comprise a unique project called Worktown, feature smoke-belching factories, chimneys, tin huts, public wash houses, terrace houses and sprawling population centres in. The stark title, Worktown, sums up Hildred’s tireless mission: to memorialise communities that worked.
It is a sweeping body of artistic endeavour, comprising more than 600 drawings, brought together for the first time in a new exhibition at Coalbrookdale Gallery in the heart of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site in Shropshire.
The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust has secured Hildred’s drawings of industrial Britain’s forgotten past with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. Curators, volunteers and archivists in Aberystwyth and Ironbridge have worked together to mount the exhibition, which opens tomorrow (October 5) and runs until 30 April next year.
Hildred has lived in Blaenau Ffestiniog in Gwynedd, Wales since 1969 and many of his drawings document the changing landscape of his adopted home. However, it was the artist’s childhood and formal training in the West Midlands that fired his imagination and laid the foundations for an all-consuming life’s work.
It was during the Second World War that Grimsby-born Hildred’s family moved to Coventry. He was five. “We were living in Lincolnshire but were getting raids and there was a real danger of invasion,” he recalls. Both his sister Trevlynn, then 16, and his father Frederick worked at the Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft factory in Coventry.
Hildred says his fascination with the buildings in which working men and women toiled started at a young age. “The house I was born in in Grimsby backed on to a factory that did jams and preserves. Beyond that, there was a railway crossing and a marshalling yard and the docks. I came into the world programmed to be interested in these sort of things,” he says.
“When we moved to Coventry I missed it, but I then found places in Coventry that were equally interesting.”
Hildred, who lived in Marner Crescent, Radford, recalls in particular the big, brick chimney at Cash’s weavers, which he sketched. “It was such a beautiful structure. It was only doing a functional job, dispersing smoke, but a great deal of care had gone into designing it.”
Having failed his 11-plus, Hildred declined to sit the exam a second time and joined Coventry College of Art at Hillcrest when he was 13 years old. He describes his time at the college as the happiest of his life.
“Going from an all-boys school to a smaller Edwardian villa, where half the subjects were art and half the pupils were girls, was good going,” he says.
Hildred went on to study industrial design at Birmingham College of Art in Margaret Street and then moved to the Royal College of Art.