A historic Uppermill property is being turned into Oldham’s newest art gallery thanks to the generosity of its former owner and the vision of her two neighbours.
Joan MacDonald 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 house for the Saddleworth community.
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 also invited the Independent for a first behind the scenes look at a work in progress.
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.
Working under her maiden name Joan Charnley, she 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 we were the sons she never had.
“But it was still a massive shock after she died 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.
“However, when we cleared the house we found lots of notes Joan had made about the gallery she wanted.
“I guess she’d been planning it for years and at some point had hoped to tell us what she wanted.
“Sadly, she died before she really 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 Tameside-based Jonathan Ashton of JA Improvements and Dave Barton from D.J Barton Building Solutions.
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 April.
“Then we’ve given ourselves just 12 months to learn how to run an art gallery and education space,” laughed Julian.
“It’s our intention to make ‘The Weavers Factory’ Britain’s first post-Brexit business.
“The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019 and the following morning at 10am we’ll welcome our first visitors to the gallery.
“I am sure Joan would have approved!”