For 50-years the Weavers Factory was home to the award-winning textile artist Joan Charnley. The Grade-II listed building was restored in 2018 and opened as a contemporary art gallery on April 6th 2019. Located in the centre of Uppermill, Saddleworth it was constructed in 1808 by John Mallalieu and originally used as a factory for domestic weavers before being abandoned when the Industrial Revolution made small-scale weaving untenable. In the first half of the 20th Century the property was used as a coffin-makers, an illegal gambling den and a temperance hotel, before being converted into a house in 1963 by our Patron Joan Charnley and her husband Archibald MacDonald. In 2018 it was fully restored and converted into a contemporary art gallery.
Julian Bovis, Curator
“When Nigel and I bought a house next door to Joan in 2012 we had no idea what an exciting journey all three of us would take. Joan wasn’t just a textile designer, she was an all round polymath. She was educated in an era when people still read books and right up until the day she died Joan was inquisitive about everything. She never quite mastered the iPad but she knew Roget’s Thesaurus back to front.
Contrary to how it appeared we didn’t look after her, she looked after us. That 5-foot-nothing, 88-year-old lady taught us 6-foot 40-something men all about life. She made us brush up our act and raise our game - nothing was allowed to be sloppy or lackadaisical on Joan’s watch. As the years pass since Joan’s death, Nigel and I have begun to focus on the legacy she left, but nothing will ever be as important as the friendship we had and the love we shared.
Nigel Durkan, Manager
“I remember the first day we met Joan, it was a rainy January morning in Uppermill and she was huddled underneath an umbrella rushing to the Co-Op to buy cakes. Within a couple of weeks she’d invited us into her house and we became firm friends. Joan was always meticulous about presentation, a cup of tea would be adorned with a matching serviette and a pack of biscuits would always be arranged into a beautiful shape.
Joan was always so generous with her time and her advise, she taught Julian how to be a better artist and taught me how to be a better gardener and cook. Every day we appreciate what a privilege it is to run the Weavers Factory and fulfil Joan’s wish to transform her home into the best art gallery in Greater Manchester. Hopefully if you’re reading this you’ll visit the Weavers Factory and appreciate what a special place it is.
Joan Charnley - A life in pictures
How an artist’s dying wish turned her neighbours into gallery curators
Julian Bovis and Nigel Durkan on fulfilling their friend Joan Charnley’s final wish to turn her home into an ‘art house’
by Kate Kellaway, Sat 30 Mar 2019
Photographs by Gary Calton
It was was a week after the funeral of textile artist and teacher Joan Charnley, who died, at 84, in the summer of 2016, that her solicitor got in touch with her neighbours, Julian Bovis and Nigel Durkan, to tell them she had left them her house – a tall, listed Georgian building in Uppermill, on the edge of Saddleworth moor outside Manchester – and that she would like, although she understood it might not be possible, for it to be turned into what she quaintly called an “art house”. She described the two men, in her will, as her “soulmates”. In her lifetime, she referred to them simply as “the boys”. I meet “the boys” – both middle-aged – before the opening, on 6 April, of the Weavers Factory and at the end of more than two years of devoted slog during which they have made their neighbour’s dream come true. The gallery got its name because these houses were once a pre-industrial weavers’ factory. Their windows look on to a former steam mill. The houses’ window frames are painted black (originally to hide the soot). “Even the soot here is listed,” Bovis laughs.
Over lunch in their own house, Bovis and Durkan reminisce about their relationship with Charnley. What I want to know is: did they have any idea she was leaving them her house? None, they say. They were busy organising her funeral when the news came through and too grief-stricken to take it in. Durkan recalls every detail of the funeral (Bovis wrote the eulogy, Durkan oversaw refreshments). Two huge Saddleworth pies had been ordered, with “JO” the decoration in pastry on one, and “AN” adorning the other. But once they had recovered from all the work that follows a death, surely they must have hesitated before taking on the daunting transformation of her house? “No – we’d have been scared not to do it,” Bovis says. Charnley, they imagine, must have been waiting for the right moment to tell them about her plans, always believing there would be more time. Her aunt had lived to 104, she had told them she hoped to do the same.
Joan Charnley was born in Southport, in 1928, and married Scottish artist Archie MacDonald in the early 60s (he died in the 90s). The marriage was childless. Charnley seems to have chosen Bovis and Durkan as the sons she never had. Bovis, a former art director and artist himself, and Durkan, an art therapist, recall that there was nothing sudden about the relationship with Joan. They moved into their house in 2012 (she had been living in hers since 1963) but it was three months before they received an invitation to tea.
Bovis has since observed that the better she knew them, the further into the house they were permitted to go. At first, it was ground floor only; later, they were invited into what she jokingly referred to as the “grand salon” on the first floor; only much later – the ultimate vote of confidence – were they admitted to her studio at the top. It was in that studio, after her death, that they were thrilled to discover an “unbelievable” hoard of textiles going back to the 40s, 50s and 60s. Durkan explains that she had taken part in the Festival of Britain and shown her designs to Liberty and Heal’s but that Heal’s had judged them “too advanced” and warned her: “You’ll never sell them.” (“Idiots!” Durkan fumes.) Charnley’s work was ahead of its time, although Sanderson took a design called Beachcomber, now in the V&A. They show me a wonderful selection of textiles, including a bold, Ghanaian-inspired pattern, a profuse garden (she was a skilful botanical artist) and intricate repeat patterns of shells, leaves and birds. “We want to make her famous,” they say.
Asked what Joan was like as a character, they alight on the same adjective: “Cheeky.” Durkan says: “Her public persona was upstanding, proper, well-spoken – queen of etiquette – yet behind it all, she was raucous and subversive. She thought she was subtle but the faces she would pull!” There was more than a touch of the thespian about her.
What comes across most strongly is the fun the three of them had. There were themed dinners where Charnley would appear in fancy dress: with French moustache, Indian crown, Russian fur hat (depending on the menu). Reminiscing about the days when she taught at Flatford Mill in Suffolk with the painter John Nash (she and her husband had also been friends with LS Lowry), she would shout out: “We’d be smoking, drinking whisky and eating marmalade!” Her voice was “like Margaret Rutherford’s”. Durkan is keen that no one gets the wrong end of the stick: “We didn’t look after her. She was no doddery old bird, she was fierce.” They show me a snap of her dressed up in Father Christmas kit – “the full Santa”. She had turned up on their doorstep with rouged cheeks, a homemade, cotton-wool beard and with a black bin-liner stuffed full of gifts (little did they know what a huge gift would one day be coming their way).
During the 50s and early 60s, before she married, Charnley had lectured in textiles at Great Yarmouth (the school no longer exists). And she only missed out on becoming principal because, Durkan explains, unmarried women were not considered eligible during that era. Since her death, the two men have made a pilgrimage to East Anglia, taking with them her sketchbooks and meticulously – delightedly – retracing her steps.
They explain that she was never going to be held back by being a widow. She once told them that, on the day her husband died, there had been a village party going on at the top of the hill. She told herself she had a choice and that life, like the party, must go on – and went up the hill. Her spirit seldom flagged: at 80 she took off on a trip to the Galápagos islands.
It took months, after Charnley’s death, to clear the house. It had been a weaver’s cottage, a temperance hotel, a gambling den and a coffin-makers (Archie MacDonald had even fashioned a table out of coffin boards). But it was a house never destined to be funereal and besides, it is Bovis and Durkan’s belief that the most powerful memorials are about continuing life: at the Weavers Factory, workshops will flourish in what was once Charnley’s studio. It took a year to convert the house – fortunately, Bovis had, as a young man, trained as an architect. The result is a gem: stylishly quirky, in keeping with Charnley’s eccentricity. There are, in addition to the assorted gallery spaces, a tea-bar and shop. In what used to be the kitchen, there is an antique grocer’s counter with cards and wrapping paper reproducing Charnley’s sketches – another form of afterlife. On the ground floor, there is handsome York stone paving, lifted from the small, fern-filled garden. The grand salon is an elegant space with beams that were, as Durkan has recently discovered, taken from Prussian ships decommissioned at the end of the 1700s.
They had been fearful that converting the house might neutralise Joan – but the Georgian building was never about to turn into a white cube. “It’s a gallery and her house,” they say. They have hung on to two of her chairs, her father’s stepladder and her little kitchen stool. They are determined that because she could not abide “sloppy work or mediocrity”, they will only show work by artists they love. Two years’ worth of shows are already planned. They stress this will never be a “poncey” gallery. It will be “democratic”. There will be no manifestos by artists: the work will speak for itself. But there will be a selection of short films, made by Bovis, about artists’ lives, shown in the “blue movie room” (thus named because it is painted blue).
The focus will be on young, as-yet-unknown artists and older, neglected artists. They plan to feature Ivon and Jack (both 23), who are singular and lively furniture designers, and Seamus Killick, 28, born in Wales and based in Glasgow, who will receive the Factory’s first bursary with a project about fires in Saddleworth’s cotton mills. “We have also found loads of women like Joan. The wonderful potter Pat Kaye and the superb artist Elizabeth Wood are both octogenarians.” They are chuffed, too, to be involving students aged 16-18 from Oldham College who will be curating a show inspired by Charnley’s life (education was important to her). The invitation to the Weavers launch is a sketch by a 16-year-old, who was inspired by hearing that Charnley’s three favourite scents were freshly mown grass, lavender and Chanel No 5.
It is touching to meet Bovis and Durkan in a world where most stories about neighbours involve a failure to get on, and they admit to feeling emotional as they relive their friendship and show me around their immaculate gallery spaces. And when I suggest that the progression through the front door, into the grand salon and into the studio now seems to have gone a step further, Bovis agrees at once: “Into our heads.” And he then admits that the biggest surprise is that Joan is “in our lives more than ever before”.
Joan of Art! Gallery legacy project drawing close to completion
An historic Uppermill property is being turned into Manchester’s newest art gallery thanks to the generosity of its former owner and the vision of her two neighbours.
Joan Charnley lived in the Grade-II listed Georgian building on New Street for more than half a century. When she died in July 2016, Joan bequeathed the former weaver’s factory to Julian Bovis and Nigel Durkan. Her simple brief was to turn her artist’s home into an art gallery, With Joan’s final wish legalised and planning permission granted, Julian and partner Nigel began their massive renovation project last October.
One of the most unspoilt and unchanged buildings of its type, the pair had a blank canvas to turn Joan’s property – built in 1808 – into an art gallery fit for the 21st Century. They invited the Saddleworth Independent for a first behind the scenes look at a work in progress. The Grade II listed property on New Street will become Oldham’s newest gallery. We will now follow the transformation until the gallery, named ‘The Weavers Factory’, opens to the public in Spring 2019.
“Joan was a phenomenal woman,” said Julian, a former national newspaper Art Director. “When her husband died in 1991, she set about travelling the world. And on her 80th birthday she ended up in the Galapagos Islands. Joan, who lived for a further eight years, was married to Archie McDonald, a former head of Oldham Art School.
“An award-winning artist and textile designer, she was a leading member of Saddleworth Festival Arts, Saddleworth Garden Society and the Northern Horticultural Society. Joan regularly held solo and group art exhibitions across the country. Her work is held in the Victoria & Albert Museum, public galleries and private collections.
“When Nigel and I moved in next door to Joan we became close friends,” explained Julian. “Joan didn’t have any children and I suppose we were the sons she never had. But it was still a massive shock to get a call from a solicitor saying Joan had left us her house to turn into art gallery.
“It was a wide remit. She wanted her home to become an "art house" for the community and left the rest for me and Nigel to sort out. There was no more information than that. When we cleared the house we found lots of notes Joan had made about the gallery she wanted. She must haven been planning it for years and at some point had hoped to tell us what she wanted. Sadly, she died before she got the chance.”
One of the main tasks for Julian and Nigel was to appoint builders who had empathy for their ideas and grand designs. A social media search led them to local builders Jonathan Ashton and Dave Barton. Then began the intricate transformation of an original two-in-one building, a Georgian house at the front and Weaver’s Cottage at the back.
“Of all the properties in the row it’s in the most original state,” added Julian. “Joan moved into the house in 1963 but didn’t put in central heating to 2009. The building lends itself into large, multi-use space, enabling us to turn it into a commercial art gallery and multi-use educational space. Part of the planning application was to try and reflect what the building would have been like in 1808 and our builders have cleverly blended original details with contemporary additions. Building work is expected to be completed by the middle of August 2018, ready for the gallery to open in April 2019.
"The gallery is an exciting project, but more than anything we just want to make Joan proud" smiled Julian.