Capturing a colossus
An exhibition marking 50 years of Fiddler’s Ferry and its importance to the area’s industrial heritage will be opening at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery in July.
Artist Shaun Smyth and photographer Lee Harrison were granted exclusive access to the power station, which closed in 2020, during its decommissioning process. Their aim was to document Fiddler’s Ferry and create a visual historical archive for future generations before it disappears.
But, on a personal level, they were stunned by the enormity of the site with its eight 374ft cooling towers and 660ft chimney which provided plenty of inspiration for their work, which was captured from various vantage points.
Shaun said: “This colossal site can be seen for miles around. Inside the towers it’s almost like a cathedral. When we went into the towers it was like the 1979 film Alien and we were in absolute awe of the space. To depict the scale of the place, I began to create huge artworks. I want to give viewers a sense of being overwhelmed by its scale.”
Lee added: “It was like a giant sculptural, organic shape curving your eyes towards the sky that acted as its ever changing roof. It was a surreal experience.”
The scale of the power station came with its challenges in terms of capturing it in all its glory though. In fact, Shaun had to set up some of his paintings in Fiddler’s Ferry’s cafeteria because they became too large for his studio.
He said: “This was great, as the workers would come and look at the sketches and paintings progress during their lunch break. They’d point out things that I had missed or thought should be included. These conversations and stories about the site fed into the finished paintings.”
Lee added: “Their commitment to the important job of supplying electricity to the community and pride in the site was evident throughout our time there. To them, this was much more than just a workplace – many had spent the best part of their working life there and there was a mix of community humour and sadness at the imminent closure.”
The two artists are passionate about documenting Fiddler’s Ferry because they have grown up with it on their doorstep and appreciate its significance to the region as an employer, energy provider and symbol of the north west.
Shaun, from Runcorn, encountered Lee, who lives where the River Mersey begins in Stockport, through social media thanks to their shared interest in industrial landscapes.
Lee added: “I work a lot in North Cheshire and Merseyside so I see Fiddler’s Ferry every week and it’s impossible not to look left when I drive past. Once, I saw the towers in full steam endlessly pushing upwards, with rapeseed flowers in the foreground. It was an astonishing sight that gave the impression that it was almost a living, breathing structure and I’ll never forget the visual impact.”
The exhibition – Fiddler’s Ferry: The Cloud Factory – will launch on Friday, 15 July, and run until Sunday, 2 October. It is the culmination of a huge project – in collaboration with SSE, which runs the site, and Painters Tubes Magazine – which dates back to 2017 when Shaun first pitched the idea to Marc Rudd, Director of Engineering and Innovation at the power station.
Marc said: “We got talking around Fiddler’s Ferry’s limited operational life as SSE drives to a zero carbon future, plus the government’s policy dictating no coal fired power station would be in operation post 2025. We thought it was absolutely the right time to capture not only Fiddler’s Ferry but the people who work at Fiddler’s.
“Fiddler’s has been an operational power station since 1971, it has made a huge socio-economic impact on the local and surrounding area. The number of people who have worked at, or have friends or family that have worked at Fiddler’s, is almost immeasurable.
“The body of work produced by Shaun and Lee in the last years of Fiddler’s Ferry’s operational life, captures, commemorates and celebrates the working lives of the thousands of us who have passed through the gates, to make not only electricity but industrial history and heritage. I know this work will be cherished.”
Shaun said: “The station forms part of my early memories of childhood and having been brought up in Runcorn, I am proud to be recording and preserving this iconic site’s industrial heritage.”
Lee added: “This is the very end of an era, a landmark that will never be seen again. I hope from our images people will see the structures and workers in a way they might not have seen them before. Hopefully our images will convey the scale, shape and influence on the landscape and community after they are gone that words alone couldn’t.”