Cranfield Brothers flourmills dominated the Ipswich Docks since 1884. At the beginning of the twentieth century they imported wheat from all over the world, but modernisation after 1926 led to the increased use of native wheat. In 1960’s they expanded to include large-scale Betabake bakeries in the region. The company came to enjoy a reputation for a high standard of quality. By 1971 they employed thousands of people in the town and operated a fleet of 950 vehicles. However, the continuing need for capital investment and limited space on the docks for future expansion, led to the decision to close Cranfields in the late 1990’s.
The sounds and smells of Cranfield's Mill on Ipswich Dock may now be lost, but the Valerie Irwin ‘Change in Charcoal’ Collection is an extremely important artistic record of demolition and redevelopment of the Cranfield’s site between 2005-2009.
Valerie Irwin had completed her artist training in Suffolk and had always enjoyed drawing the scenes from the Ipswich Docks. However, in 2005 she was drawn to activity at the Cranfield’s site. She noticed the diggers moving piles of earth, another clawing at a brick structure, a few men busy on a stack of wood. The action had started, so she propped up her easel against the railings, quite expecting to be shouted off, but stayed there three weeks.
One day she returned to find that they had started dismantling a wonderful brick building and she had missed it! It had gone forever and she was not there to witness and document its departure. Valerie realised that she would have to come everyday, keeping the same hours of the workforce, otherwise it was not worth coming at all.
She drew in charcoal on white A3 cartridge paper; moving vehicles, men at work, concentrating on shapes and spaces created by the activity. All her work was completed on site and never touched the drawings after returning to her studio. Valerie had no idea that this was start of a process that would last 18 months. Her observational drawings remember all aspects of Cranfield’s Flour Mill. Valerie is sentimental about the loss of industry and employment expressed through her work. She conveys a communal sense of loss as the demolition stage drew to a completion.
When Laing O’Rourke took over in 2007 to start construction, Valerie was invited in to make drawings on the construction site. Having already spent 18 months drawing the demolition intensely she was reluctant and declined. However the words “ We will be happy to welcome you onto the site” rang in her head and she realised this was an opportunity, which would probably never come her way again. Rather than observing from outside the railings, she could work inside the site. Before long Valerie was greeted with a hard hat, high viz jacket and steel tipped boots. She attended health and safety training every six months and ate in the works canteen.
As the site lay neat anticipating the construction, Valerie was drawn to some activity at the Cranfield’s Vehicle Workshop across the road, next to St Mary’s at the Quay.
She then spent a further three months documenting this demolition in her unique observational style.There was a sequence to the construction, which Valerie followed in her work being led by the workforce. This fell into a sequence of different jobs to be done; so Valerie’s work unfolded in sequences from preparation of the ground, drilling the pilings, to steel cages being built and filled with concrete. Going up the build first by ladder, the external stairs and eventually by external lift, over 15 months she produced hundreds of A3 charcoal drawings. Many run as sequences of one process, drawings which run like video as different workmen came and went across the paper, walls went up, as brickies worked across the page and objects like materials moved across the sky hanging from the tower crane. Each day, was like a new day and a new path with so much to learn, take in and draw. Valerie considered this a very privileged experience.