How my dad came to fill a mill with David Hockneys

How the partnership between a great artist and a Bradford shop-owner created one of the UK’s most exciting galleries


The Salts Mill gallery

The Salts Mill gallery

All the years Zoe Silver made documentaries with Alan Yentob, she was sitting on the best arts story in Britain. But it was one she could never pitch. "It would have been a conflict of interest," she laughs of her late father's audacious collaboration with David Hockney.

Jonathan Silver's dream to bring Salts Mill, a huge, disused mill near his native Bradford, back to life and fill it with the work of Britain's greatest living painter - all without any government subsidy - would have made a brilliant episode of Imagine, the BBC's flagship arts show presented by Yentob. And perhaps one day it will, now that the 34-year-old Zoe Silver has left the BBC and moved back to Bradford to carry on her father's work.

"I was 11 when I saw Salts Mill for the first time," she says of the spectacular former cloth factory which is part of the "ideal" Victorian workers' village of Saltaire, one of the UK's World Heritage Sites. Named after Sir Titus Salt, who built the mill in 1853, it was snapped up by Jonathan Silver, a well-known menswear, antiques and art entrepreneur, for less than £1m in 1987.

"It wasn't the first mill dad had bought to convert, so I wasn't that surprised," Zoe admits. Nor was she surprised by the arrival of dozens of Hockney paintings before the mill re-opened. "David [who was born in Bradford] was as keen as dad that his work be shown there, and it was only a couple of years since we had bumped into him in LA, while we were travelling round the world, and had tea with him."

If these remarks indicate an extraordinary life, the Silver family have certainly led one. Jonathan's mother Irene ran a boarding-house for Jewish refugees in Bradford, and she and her husband Sydney, a market trader, scraped to send their eldest son to Bradford Grammar. "That's when he met Hockney for the first time, aged 13," explains Zoe. "Dad hated school, but was very engaged by doing the school magazine, and persuaded Hockney, an old boy who was already doing well in London by that time, to design the cover."

Hockney: Salts Mill has the largest collection of his work

Hockney: Salts Mill has the largest collection of his work

Most of all, Jonathan loved beautiful things and was already dealing in antiques in his teens. "I think he really wanted to be a painter - he studied art and textiles at Leeds University - but he got swept up in all the excitement of the Carnaby Street scene, and trying to bring the essence of the swinging sixties to the north," says Zoe. "He opened his first shop almost straight from university, and then had loads of them."

Silver is best remembered as a retailer of stylish menswear - Ian Curtis of Joy Division got married in one of his suits -- but his coolest store, opened later, was Manchester's Art and Furniture, where he started selling works by Hockney and Kitaj in the early 1980s.

Silver was known for being impulsive - he had rushed to Israel during the Six-Day War and saw combat before it was discovered he was only 17. In 1984, after selling his menswear empire and then buying, developing and selling his half of Dean Clough - a Halifax carpet mill whose art-cum-commerce business model would become a blueprint for Salts Mill - he decided to up sticks and take his family around the world. "We travelled for two years; I was seven and my sister Davina was five, and we just accepted not going to school," says Zoe They covered four continents before bumping into Hockney on LA's Rodeo Drive.

The two men had stayed in touch over the years, and Hockney was enthusiastic about sending his pictures to Salts Mill, which Jonathan bought on a whim after returning to Britain. The collection has grown from 56 paintings in 1987 to over 400 pieces, the largest holding of Hockney's works in the world.

Displays of the artist's paintings, drawings, opera sets and works in newer media - his iPad pictures are projected in the gallery entrance - are funded by the Silvers' bookshop, diner, restaurant and other retail enterprises within the mill, as well as leases to a number of creative companies who take space there.

"We love that the mill still has a commercial purpose, besides just being a place to visit," says Zoe.

When Jonathan Silver was diagnosed with cancer in 1995, Hockney painted Sunflowers for Jonathan, a get-well painting from artist to patron delivered after his operation - Hockney had flown to Yorkshire as soon as he heard of the diagnosis.

Jonathan died in 1997, aged just 47. It is testament to the procedures he had put in place that Salts Mill barely missed a beat. "My mother, Maggie, kept it going with Robin, Jonathan's brother, and I always knew I would come back to work here one day," says Zoe.

She adds that she is now responsible for "a million things" at Salts Mill, but perhaps she may yet find time to make that pitch to Alan Yentob.

    Last updated: 11:21am, July 15 2010