Edinburgh’s home of the welly boot is reborn as stunning arts space

More than 30 years ago, writing in The Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh about West Fountainbridge, the late Colin McWilliam remarked dryly: “Numerous buildings on both sides, but not much architecture.” I don’t know what he would think of it now.

Edinburgh Printmakerss new home at Castle Mills

The buildings are new, but there is still very little architecture. Indeed, walking past the shiny, blank facades reminds me a little of Mussolini’s Nova Roma, a soulless bit of Fascist Rome where visitors never go. As you go further west along Fountainbridge, however, new building peters out and, awaiting their architectural fate, huge vacant spaces open on both sides. On the south however, almost alone, one much older building still stands. This is Castle Mills, former headquarters of the North British Rubber Company, once home of welly boots, rubber tyres and much else in the rubber line, and a handsome industrial building that escaped Colin McWilliam’s sharp eye. This was perhaps because a brown gunge then covered its decorative brickwork, though its front door and magnificent iron gates have always been visible. Now, however, the building is both restored and transformed as the new home of Edinburgh Printmakers.

Callum Innes: Prints 2005-2019, Edinburgh Printmakers *****

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Thomas Kilpper: The Politics of Heritage vs. the Heritage of Politics, Edinburgh Printmakers *****

The first of the Scottish print workshops, Edinburgh Printmakers began nearly 50 years ago in a room above a shop in Victoria Street. For most of the intervening years, it has been housed in a former bathhouse on Union Street. With its high roof, top light and friendly atmosphere, it was much loved by those who worked there. Some were correspondingly doubtful about the move to new premises. Led by director Sarah Manning-Shaw, refurbishing and fitting out the new building has taken five years and cost £11 million. Funding came from many different sources, public and private, and the City of Edinburgh has contributed the building at a peppercorn rent for 125 years, long enough for several generations of printmakers.

Re-roofed and transformed internally by architects Page & Park, at more than 2,000 square metres the new building is more than twice the size of Printmakers’ former home. At its heart, the new studio and workshop seems to be almost three times the size of the old one. It has been created through two upper floors of the old building. A wall has been partially removed to create one enormous room, punctuated by handsome cast iron columns in two ranges, one above the other, supporting the open steel beams of the original top floor, now removed, and the framework of the roof. With new skylights, this arrangement recreates the high ceiling and top light of the old studio – an absolute requirement of the members – though I suspect blinds may be needed when the high summer sun shines in. The old presses and equipment have been moved in wholesale, but more has been added.

The additional space allows for other major new developments. One wing is let out as workshops and premises for creative industries, bringing income, but also creating opportunities for synergies. There is a self-contained flat for artists-in-residence. In its old premises, Printmakers had no problem attracting artists from all over the world. It will now be even better equipped to accommodate them.

There is dedicated archive space for the huge collection of prints accumulated over half a century and there is a shop where the prints are sold. There is a fine education facility which will offer hands-on printing experience. There are also two galleries, of which more in a moment. A courtyard in the southwest angle of the building has the beginnings of a communal garden. It also offers an exterior exhibition space and a sunny outdoor spot for the cafe which opens on to it.

The renewal of the building also provided an opportunity for several permanent commissions. On the outside west wall, Mark Doyle has created two relief panels. Described as made in glass fibre reinforced concrete, they are white and composed of finely detailed casts of some of the many and various rubber products made in the building when it was a factory. One of the largest industrial facilities in Edinburgh, it employed some 600 people. Working with rubber as a raw material is evidently an unpleasant and very smelly business, but, as these reliefs inform us, the workforce produced a variety of essential items – gas masks for two world wars, rubber boots for soldiers in the trenches, but Hunter wellies too, hot water bottles, rubber tyres, conveyor belts and much else.

The original iron gates, framed in a handsome stone doorway, are on the east side of the building, but the main entrance is now on the north, on the main road. Here a fine new set of gates has been made by Rachel Duckhouse using a motif derived from the heavy rollers used in rubber manufacture, but with an appropriate echo of printmaking rollers too. One of the features of the old studio was the way visitors could watch from spectators’ gallery. Working with the architects, Calum Colvin has created an enormous periscope-cum-kaleidoscope that as well as kaleidoscopic patterns gives a mirrored view from the cafe to the studio.

To return now to the temporary exhibition spaces, one is on the ground floor next to the entrance, the other on the first floor with a low ceiling, floor-level windows and an open light well looking down on to the entrance and shop. For its opening exhibition this upper gallery is given over to a retrospective of Callum Innes’s prints from 2005 to 2019. As an artist patron, Innes has a close association with the organisation while his beautiful prints are a wonderful demonstration of the skills that, no matter where it was housed, would still be its greatest resource.

Gallery One on the ground floor is entirely occupied, floor and ceiling, by the Politics of Heritage vs the Heritage of Politics, a single, remarkable work by German artist-printmaker Thomas Kilpper, with help from some friends among the printmakers. In homage to the building’s history, the whole floor is covered with heavy rubber and you are walking on the matrix of an enormous print. The rubber is engraved with numerous figures in a compendium of politics – including, among much else, Brexit, the European Parliament, Theresa May, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump – the history of rubber with a scene from the war in Malaya, and even, reflecting the locality, an image of Sean Connery. He was born nearby, near enough to have known the awful smell of the rubber works. As it is the matrix, on the floor all this is reversed. Printed on silk, the print itself, the right way around, is above you, suspended with light above it. The whole installation is a spectacular launch for a brilliant enterprise clearly indicative both of its ambition and its relevance. n

The Politics of Heritage vs. The Heritage of Politics until 13 July; Callum Innes until 8 June