With a pinch of salt

21st June 1996 at 01:00
SALTAIRE: A PICTURE STORYBOOK. By Simon Palmer Jonathan Silver Pounds 5.99 inc pp from 1853 Gallery, Salts Mill, Salts Mill Rd, Saltaire BD18 3LB West Yorks

THE WHITE STONE IN THE CASTLE WALL. By Sheldon Oberman Paintings by Les Tait TundraRagged Bears Pounds 8.95 NIGHT OF THE GARGOYLES. By Eve Bunting Illustrated by David Wiesner David Bennett Pounds 9.99

Elaine Williams eyes up some distinctive edifices

Saltaire is a village to wonder at. Tucked into the Aire valley near Bradford, this 19th-century phenomenon with its model housing and Italianate Congregational church built around the great mill of Saltaire hallows the spirit of Titus Salt, industrialist, philanthropist and visionary.

Titus built Salts Mill in 1853: one million square feet of industrial neo-classicism completed in one year. Having discovered the lustrous properties of alpaca wool from Peru, he mixed it with local varieties, made his fortune producing fine cloth for ladies' fashions and invested it in the physical, moral and mental advancement of his workforce.

Simon Palmer, a painter and previously unpublished illustrator, was commissioned to tell the Saltaire story in pictures and verse by Jonathan Silver, owner of Salts Mill and its David Hockney collection, and a key figure in the reclamation of Titus's town. The result, produced at the mill by Palmer and Silver with editing help from Tony Harrison, is a wonderfully quirky presentation of Saltaire's history as myth.

Titus wanders the streets like an Old Testament prophet, admonishing the locals for hanging out their washing on Sundays. Like Old Father Time, Titus patrols the Airedale canal, eyes heavenward, pocket watch in hand, pursued by Congregational women and llamas.

Inspired by his namesake Samuel, this latter-day Palmer sets his industrial narrative within a rolling rural idyll with lumpy figures borrowed from Stanley Spencer - the prosaic made poetic by Titus's architectural fantasy. Mourners gather in the snow for Titus's funeral, evoking Bruegel. The two dogs thrusting into this scene point to the future - they are David Hockney's dachshunds.

The present-day regeneration of Saltaire has brought many visitors and, recently, a Civic Trust award. Saltaire would make a charming companion for a child or adult on a day trip and can also be read from a distance. Palmer is no poet, but his idiosyncratic verse narrative with personal asides is so tongue-in-cheek that it complements his spirited pictures. This is a witty and powerful evocation of the ghosts that still haunt this village.

The White Stone in the Castle Wall presents another historical industrial narrative in an equally strong pictorial way. Sheldon Oberman writes about the building of Toronto's Casa Loma, the biggest castle in North America, in the early years of this century. Manufacturer Sir Henry M Pellatt, who also brought electric light to the city, was responsible.

The Casa Loma wall has 250,000 dun-coloured stones and one white one. This is the story of how that white stone got there and the stoicism of a boy, John Tommy Fiddich. Again, written largely in verse, this is a muscular morality tale, well matched by the paintings of Les Tait, which mix American realism and Impressionism, the artistic style of the age. These textural pictures in good, rich, colour are full of light, atmosphere and movement, and portray well one boy's battle against fate and the elements.

Night of the Gargoyles is a ghoulishly witty journey into American Gothic architecture, breathing life into the fantastic creatures that adorn public buildings. David Wiesner's pastels bring out the humour and the horror of these creatures as they slither and slide at night to meet and grumble about: ". . . summer passing and the rain that pours in torrents through their gaping lips and chokes their throats with autumn leaves."

With skilful use of perspective and tone he creates a gripping drama that fascinates children. This is also the book for adults who have ever thought the gargoyles might be having a laugh at their expense.

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