Set a couple of miles from the rugged Northumberland coast just north of Newcastle, Ashington was once the most important coal mining village in the world, home to a cluster of giant pits from the 1860s onwards. And though the black gold dug from this earth fired British homes and factories for over a century it is the paintings created by a group of local mineworkers that have fired imaginations around the globe.
Dubbed the Ashington Group, they were more colloquially known as the Pitmen Painters. Their unique works created over several decades from the mid-1930s startled the British art establishment, and gained acclaim in overseas exhibitions from Berlin to Beijing. Their story inspired a 2007 play by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall – based on writings by art critic William Feaver - that wowed audiences in London and New York, and is performed regularly around the world in places as different as Peru and Korea .
Today, a permanent collection of nearly 90 Pitmen paintings hang in a bright white-walled gallery at the Woodhorn Museum, opened in 2006 amid the historic Grade II-listed buildings of the Woodhorn Colliery which Margaret Thatcher's government closed in the 1980s, despite vast reserves of coal remaining. A statue of a miner wears an expression of quiet defiance in front of the old pithead winding wheel. The old slagheaps that once ringed the colliery have been transformed into the green swathe of the Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, dotted with wildfowl-friendly lakes.
The Museum also presents a fresh face, its entrance capped by a massive blades in giant homage to the cutting machines that once gouged out coal seams below. Inside, there's a powerful chronicle of life above and below ground in a once proud mining community, from brass bands and colourful miners' banner to the memorial glasses created to raise funds for those left bereaved by underground accidents.
The Woodhorn gallery provides a setting vastly different to the cluttered old hut where the Pitmen Painters met each week to share their latest efforts. For them, they were depictions of their daily lives but in the wider art world these were things that had never been painted before - coalface depths where miners and pit ponies toiled in an other-worldly mix of bright electric light and strange browny darkness, whippets exercised in the lee of slagheaps and power-stations, raucous social clubs. “Extraordinarily interesting” is how one crusty-voiced BBC presenter described them in a 1938 radio broadcast, and he was right.
That the paintings exist at all, however, owes much to chance. In 1934, the Workers' Educational Association engaged Robert Lyon – master of painting at a Newcastle college – to teach Art Appreciation to colliery workers (above ground staff as well as miners) who had, ironically, been keener to study Evolution but had been unable to find a tutor! Lyon soon realised that lecturing over Old Master slides wasn't engaging these worldly-wise, practical men. So wondering if 'learning by doing' might give them more insight into artistic thinking, he gathered painting materials and told his erstwhile pupils to try for themselves.
Going round the room I marvel at the truly distinctive visions that poured forth. In Jimmy Floyd's Pigeon Crees lovingly-tended allotments and lean-to huts are a little Eden against a backdrop of pitheads, smoking chimneys and towering slagheaps - which then take centre-stage in Harry Wilson's powerfully unsentimental Ashington Colliery. When Billy Connolly visited, he picked out Fred Laidlaw's Fish And Chips - a beautifully captured line of hungry folk snaking into a chippie, its glowing facade lighting kids larking outside in the Northumberland night.
Though the Group would have been mortified at the very idea of highlighting any individual, Oliver Kilbourn stands out for sheer commitment, painting into his 80s (he died in 1993). His range was admirable, from cosy domestic settings to the starkness of the coalface. In Progging The Mat, three women by a blazing coal fire carry on the old Northumberland tradition of making “proggy mats” from old sacks and recycled fabric, while Half Time At The Rec (Welfare) depicts neat lines of football players taking a breather in the shadow of the ever-present slagheaps, topped by powerlines that still march across a coastal strip I investigate with a visit to the new Art Trail in nearby Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.
In medieval times, this was one of Britain's biggest ports, before its long sandy beach made it a miners' seaside getaway. Walking the promenade, I admire the old church on a headland and the last remaining cobles, Northumberland's unique fishing boats. Gazing out at a choppy North Sea, I wonder what the Pitmen Painters would have made of Sean Henry's sculpture The Couple on a plinth out in the bay. I decide they'd have appreciated both the ordinariness of the figures and the extraordinariness of its placement.
Back at the Museum, I head for the archives to see a series of around 40 studies Oliver Kilbourn made in his 70s, picturing every colliery job he'd had since the 1930s under the title My Life As A Pitman. The vaults also hold rare examples of sculpture from the Ashington Group, such as Jimmy Floyd's charming carved wood miner, plus a welter of evocative colliery memorabilia.
The fact that these wonderful things aren't displayed with the Pitmen paintings is partly about space but more about the control the Ashington Group members exerted over their legacy, including deciding which paintings were kept for showing and how they are hung. “The collection was curated by the artists themselves,” explains museum marketing director Deborah Tate. “They brought it together as the best and most representative selection of their work across the years.”
A determination to be their own masters extended to not giving a jot what the professional art world thought, according to William Feaver, whose 1980s book on the Pitmen Painters rekindled interest that had waned after the struggles of WW2. “They needed no criticism as they criticised themselves, positively and affectionately, to such a degree!,” he tells me. “[Art] critics were irrelevant.”
The Group were also happily “unprofessional” in having no interest in making money from their work. “They only sold paintings if they needed to buy materials,” explains Tate. “Though a lot of the paintings are done with wall paint on bits of board, whatever came to hand. I suspect if you tested the paint you'd find it came from batches used to paint walls and doors in the colliery!”
Doing what felt right was the proper way of being in a town proud not just of its industrial might but also the production of sporting legends. Three of England's most famous footballers were Ashington lads: World Cup winning brothers Bobby and Jack Charlton (the latter working as a miner before finding football glory), as well as Jackie Milburn. Affectionately known simply as Wor Jackie, the latter starred for Newcastle United and England in the 1940s while still working down the pit between matches! And Milburn actually appears completely unheralded in George Blessed's wonderful painting Whippets, where he and a flat-capped friend cradle their dogs in front of the pithead.
While Deborah Tate obviously wants as many people as possible to come to the Museum and see paintings like no others in the world, she has another desire too. “I want to get across that these miners were not stupid. They were forced to leave school early, in a community where the big employer was coal. But they went to classes to better themselves, and they were hungry for knowledge,” she says with the pride of a woman whose family's local mining roots go back a century. “You can see the stresses and weight of the world in their paintings,” she continues. “The work was hard and dangerous – but they belonged to a community, and the sense of team work and dependency on each other is so apparent in this collection.”
Leaving the museum, a huge full moon silhouettes the iconic metal outlines of the pithead wheel, silvering the miner statue I'd admired earlier in Northumberland sunshine. Though the miners have gone the art of the Pitmen Painters keeps their memories very much alive.
Woodhorn Museum: www.experiencewoodhorn.com
When Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall read about the 2006 opening of the Woodhorn Museum, then dipped into William Feaver's book Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984 he knew he had a tale ripe for dramatisation – even without painter George Blessed being Brian Blessed's uncle! And as with Billy Elliot, Hall was particularly drawn to the class-based clash of expectations – the idea “that working miners could be making works of art, painting the ordinary things around them, deemed of huge interest by the art world”.
After a 2007 sell-out at Newcastle's Live Theatre, The Pitmen Painters transferred to London's Royal National Theatre, and in 2010 opened on Broadway. In 2012 a Spanish adaptation – Mineros - premiered in Buenos Aires. “The culture which comes from heavy industry seems to be the same the world over,” says Hall. “But the fact that there weren't groups of Pitmen Painters in Asia or the Americas testifies how extraordinary the Group were.”
Hall sees further global appeal in “the arts and creative expression [being] a fundamental plank of being human,” he says. “The shocking thing is that it had never been done before. And scandalously still seems a very unusual thing to do.”
I ask if he regrets never meeting the men. “In a way that made it easier. I would have had to stick more clearly to the facts honouring a living person! But I was given extraordinary access to the work and their writings by William Feaver - without his openness the play would not have been possible.”
Ultimately Hall sets the paintings at the heart of his play, as “a collective record of a world that has now disappeared. It's something we should be very proud of,” he adds. “If only because it shows up what the world is missing.”
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