Main image: ‘The orrery’ - see below for more information
The photographer Red Saunders has big ideas – frequently involving a cast of tens if not hundreds of real-life volunteers.
The co-founder of the protest movement Rock Against Racism, launched in 1976, Saunders is now best known for unearthing key moments in social history and reimaging them in performance art epics. His photographic subjects, depicted on large-scale canvases, range from Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
For the latest instalment of Saunders’ long-running series The Hidden Project, begun in 2008, he has created three striking artworks for Derby’s new Museum of Making, which opened in the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site in May 2021. Each of Saunders’ images illuminates a moment in Derby’s social history that helped shape modern Britain.
Research for one of the pieces involved a visit to the Rolls-Royce Heritage Centre to look at the renowned Merlin engine that powered Hurricanes and Spitfires during World War II. “They mentioned that Rolls-Royce had a fully restored Spitfire in their hanger at East Midlands Airport,” says Saunders. “It was a big wow moment.”
The Spitfire became the focal point of ‘Sikh RAF volunteers’, a work celebrating those people from the subcontinent who joined the armed forces in the fight against fascism. “The story of Sikh volunteer pilots who came to fly with the RAF seemed a natural fit,” says Saunders. “It was another piece of hidden history.”
In another picture entitled ‘The lockout’, Saunders explores Britain’s first major industrial dispute at Derby’s silk mills during 1833-34, marking the birth of the nation’s trade union movement. Finally, ‘The orrery’ illuminates the scientific innovation of the Enlightenment born out of the Midlands’ industrial heartland.
‘The orrery’ (pictured above)
This photograph is inspired by the ground-breaking painting A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Wright is known for his works depicting marvels of scientific discovery during the Enlightenment. Derby Museums is home to the world’s largest collection of works by Wright and his original 'Orrery' is part of the collection.
‘Sikh RAF volunteers’
Rolls-Royce Merlin engines were developed in Derby to power Spitfires, playing a significant role in the victory of the skies in 1945. This photograph honours those who flew Allied planes during the Second World War, bringing together Sikh pilots and Royal Air Force crew, who fought together in the combined Allied forces.
The 1833-1834 disputes at Derby’s silk mills, following the dismissal of a worker, led to the Derby Lockout. Months of unrest pushed workers and their families into poverty. This was Britain’s first major industrial dispute – it captured the attention of the nation and is still spoken about by many people in Derby.
The RPS Journal is available exclusively to members. Join us to receive our award-winning magazine and read more inspiring features. Explore full member benefits here.