Monday, 6 July 2015

Temple Mills, Leeds

Temple Mills in Leeds is a precariously placed survivor of England’s brief love affair with all things Egyptian. When the John Marshall company planned the construction of a new flax mill adjacent to their existing premises (built between 1791 and 1831) it was decided to build in the fashionable Egyptian style to add prestige to the project. The services of the much travelled painter David Roberts were sought to advise on authenticity and the final design produced by Joseph Bonomi the Younger was based on the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The result was a muscular frontage with extraordinary presence behind which was a two acre factory floor, illuminated by circular sky-lights in a ceiling supported by slender columns. The roof was originally turfed over to supply grazing for a flock of sheep. To overcome the inability on the part of sheep to climb steps a hydraulic lift was installed. There’s no documentary record of the story that a sheep fell through a skylight fatally injuring a worker below but for whatever reason the grazing experiment was short lived. 

This is a serious minded effort to reproduce Egyptian architectural forms and very different from the playful polychromatic freestyle approach seen in the Egyptian House in Penzance or the Odd Fellows Hall in Devonport. The application of colour did come under consideration and Bonomi produced colour drawings but it seems to have been seen as a step too far. The client, Marshall wrote, “To an English eye the painting of the exterior walls appears a very bold step; I hardly know whether we shall screw up our courage to do that.” (Quoted from p.273 of Egypt in England, Chris Elliott, 2012) 

The building is in use as an occasional cultural event space but the overall condition is very poor. More than a third of the frontage is supported by scaffolding and shrouded in plastic sheeting and there are no signs of any work in progress. Only the office block can still be seen as originally built. Despite a Grade I listing for many years the mill has featured on lists of buildings at risk and as yet there appears to be no fully funded plan to restore the fabric of the building and find a viable future use.

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