Painted from life

With Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters about to tour nationally in the UK, I thought it might be timely to post this – my 2006 article about what happened when a group of pitmen came together to learn about art

The Ashington Group of pitmen painters used their evening art classes to produce a unique record of life in a mining community. A collection of their work has now opened on the site of the colliery where they worked

In the foreground a man in a cap and loose-fitting jacket stands in a small, hillside allotment, in front of a plain, green-and-white-painted pigeon ‘cree’. In one hand he holds a mug while, with the other, he throws out handfuls of seed. Birds, captured with quick, confident brushstrokes of blue, brown, white and grey, dip their heads to feed. Behind, a patchwork of pigeon crees, hand-built sheds and lofts, stretches almost to the horizon, where, to the extreme right, the surface buildings and headgear of Woodhorn Colliery can be made out against a dull, smoky sky. A freight train loaded with coal makes its steady, chugging progress from right to left.

The painting, Pigeon Crees by Jimmy Floyd, captures the pitman at his hobby, still and absorbed, at one of dozens of allotment spaces, all near identical, right down to the tin birdbath in front of the shed. The silent headgear is a distinctive reminder of the industry which, when the work was painted, still shaped and pervaded the lives of many of south-east Northumberland’s towns and villages. It’s one of numerous remarkable works painted by a group of pitmen from in and around Ashington, who, one night in 1934, came together under the auspices of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) to learn about art. Tutor Robert Lyon quickly discovered that the slides of Renaissance paintings on religious and mythological subjects he’d prepared for their first class meant little to his new students. They wanted to learn about painting by doing it. And they wanted to paint the subjects that mattered to them, the things they saw with their own eyes. As Jimmy Floyd was to remark, ‘I don’t talk about art, I paint it, if possible’. Within weeks of attending their first evening class, they were producing their own works, recording the day-to-day life of their community, everything from clocking in and working at the coalface to shopping and dog racing.

Seventy years on, the group’s work is on display at Woodhorn, a museum and archive on the site of the old colliery. Coal production at the colliery ended, finally, in 1981, following decades of decline during which employment at the pit declined steadily. A working mine since 1894, at its peak in the early years of the last century Woodhorn Colliery employed more than 2,000 men and produced 600,000 tons of coal each year. By the mind-1930s the nearby town of Ashington, with 30 collieries within a five-mile radius dubbed ‘the biggest pit village in the world’, had a population of 40,000. The 1937 Shell Guide to Northumberland & Durham described it as a ‘[m]ining town, mostly built in the early part of this century. Dreary rows a mile long. Ashpits and mines down the middle of still unmade streets’. But, as art critic William Feaver points out in his definitive 1988 study, Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-84, there was much more to the town than that. Harry Wilson, who was to become a leading member of the Ashington Group, recalled ‘a philosophical society’ that ‘used to meet in the Council Chambers and debate the questions of the day’ and ‘the Harmonic Hall, built by the miners to encourage the string bands and the brass bands … we got the Bach Choir out from Newcastle and filled the Central Hall with over two thousand people on a Sunday afternoon’.

Wilson, who had been gassed during the war and, deemed unfit to work in the mines, was employed as a dental mechanic, was one of 24 people, some of them miners, some mechanics and electricians, others unemployed, who attended the first meeting of a WEA art appreciation class, taken by Lyon, a Durham university lecturer, in November 1934. Writing about the experience in the WEA’s magazine Highway, Lyon said that he found his class ‘had decided views on what they did not want the class to be … They did not want to be told what was the correct thing to look for in a work of Art but to see for themselves why this should be correct; in other words they wanted a way, if possible, of seeing for themselves’. Within a couple of weeks, Feaver writes, Lyon had ditched his planned ‘contemplative method’ in favour of ‘a specially devised course of class instruction on how to draw and paint’.

A regular group of 22 began to meet weekly under Lyon’s practical tuition. ‘Experiments were executed in tempera, poster paint and oil colours on cardboard,’ Lyon wrote in an article for The Listener, ‘These exercises followed lectures and practical demonstration in some particular aspect of painting such as portrait painting’. This all sounds a bit dry; however, as Lyon later admitted, it was the group itself that, in the main, determined the content of classes. The Ashington miners were, writes Feaver, ‘a breed apart; their growing enthusiasm was bound, eventually, to rule [Lyon] out’. Another original (and perhaps the most gifted) member of the Group, Oliver Kilbourn, recalled: ‘Lyon said, “I think we’d better start you painting so you can get some inkling of what an artist has to do to create a picture. You might learn something from your struggles”. He gave us subjects like “Dawn”, “The Hermit”, “Deluge”. He had the religious angle in mind for that one but I did a deluge in an ordinary working street: waves coming down the street and thunder and clouds sort of faffing, but no biblical idea about it at all. So Lyon then said, “I tell you what, you can have your own titles and paint your own experiences”. Technique was second. Idea was the foremost thing that mattered.’

Even in their early paintings, such as Kilbourn’s ferocious Deluge, Feaver writes, ‘artlessness gives way to cautious ambition’. Lyon’s subjects – ‘straight from the teachers’ manual’, says Feaver – were swiftly superseded by titles better fitted to the depiction of working class life in Ashington, the beginnings of what Feaver terms ‘a distinctive body of work’. Wilson’s East Wind, painted in 1935, shows a woman on a street corner in Ashington, struggling against a fierce wind. Two paperboys stand to her left, sheltered behind a shop wall. Andy Rankin’s In the Canteen (1935) shows an off-duty miner smoking a pipe in the works’ canteen, looking out of a window through which the colliery headgear can be glimpsed. In Oliver Kilbourn’s Saturday Night (1936) a man sings to piano accompaniment in a pub packed with working men, at the back wall a solitary door marked ‘Gentlemen’. All the paintings concern the day-to-day life of Ashington, its ordinariness, its harshness, its joys and sorrows, at work and at play. Unlike Lyon’s own later studio drawings of Kilbourn in his pit clothes, these works make no attempt to romanticise or foist nobility on their subjects. For Wilson, painting meant ‘an outlet for other things than earning my living; there is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom. When I have done a piece of painting I feel that something has happened not only to the panel or canvas, but to myself. For a time I have enjoyed a sense of mastery – of having made something real’.

The Group’s first exhibition, selected by Lyon, took place at Hatton Gallery, Armstrong College, Newcastle, in November 1936. In an interview with William Feaver, Harry Wilson recalled the experience as somewhat unnerving: ‘This fellow I knew in Ashington, I’d put him in front of a picture to show how miners get a certain crabbed shape by working underground, which in those days a lot of them did. And I was standing looking at the picture when some people came up and roared with laughter at this stupid figure of mine. Well, damn it, I’d been serious about putting this character in, and to hear people laughing at it made me think I’d done the same as them in the past with other people. So ever since that I’ve tried to get to know first of all what the artist is trying to say.’

Real, national interest in their work was not far away, however. Janet Adam Smith, former Arts Editor on The Listener and now based in Newcastle, was asked to write a piece on the group for the magazine. ‘All the men insist that their work is a special affair, done to please themselves,’ she wrote. ‘They are shy of outsiders seeing it and criticising it as they would criticise the work of full-time artists. They don’t want to become full-time painters. They don’t want to send in work to the Royal Academy or the London Group. They don’t want to be looked on as curiosities, publicised by dealers as “Miner Painters” and made a collectors’ fashion. Their only motive in selling their pictures (at a pound or thirty shillings) is to get money for painting materials and their only reason for exhibiting them now is to stimulate other tutorial classes to try the same experiment.’

This sums up, very neatly, the distinctive ethos of the Group. Members had to agree to accept criticism from their colleagues and to abide by the rules of the Group, usually agreed after lengthy meetings, which could stretch long into the night. They resisted fame and professional respectability, naming their group the Ashington Group of Unprofessional Artists. As Jimmy Floyd said, members painted what they painted to suit themselves and liked it that way. Leslie Brownrigg, a former miner turned elementary school teacher, felt that their paintings must lose some of their point when viewed by outsiders, after all ‘[t]he atmosphere of an exhibition is all so different from the hut in which we meet, and the talk and discussion which goes on there’. Nevertheless, outside interest in the Group’s work grew steadily, with an exhibition of ‘Unprofessional Painting’ at the Bensham Grove Educational Settlement in Gateshead, in October 1938, giving members the chance to meet other artists. The Group’s first London exhibition took place at Fulham Central Library in 1939. Interviews and documentaries followed, while enthusiasm among London critics led to the Group being invited to visit the National Gallery and the Royal Academy. At the height of the Group’s fame high-profile admirers included Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.

Mining being a reserved occupation, the Group was able to continue meeting after the onset of the Second World War, producing and exhibiting its series of unofficial war paintings. A new hut was built for the Group at Ashington in 1943, with the words ‘Ashington Art Group’ prominent above the door. No longer regarded as such a novelty by the chattering classes, the Group faded from the headlines after the war, though it continued to produce new work at the same steady rate. Younger members were recruited and new techniques and media tried out. New members included Fred Laidler, a colliery joiner, whose prolific work recorded, matter-of-factly, his trade and the life that surrounded it. ‘Every man paints his own type of picture’, Laidler said. But belonging to the Group gave you another perspective: ‘[I]f you ask for anybody’s opinion they’ll give it to you … You paint a picture and there’s something not exactly right, you come here and somebody will say, “well, if you had done this instead of that, that would have put it right”’. The Group defended its combative ethos and continued quietly with its work long into the declining years of the coal industry.

In the 1970s, their work was ‘rediscovered’ and popularised anew by Feaver, who was then teaching in Newcastle. Feaver recalls visiting an exhibition in his capacity as art critic for the Newcastle Journal in 1971 and being introduced to ‘four or five elderly men, well wrapped up, standing apart from the crowd … They were the Ashington Group’. Invited to the Group’s hut, Feaver found paintings under tables, behind seats, stacked up against walls, in every corner, new and old, what the remaining members termed their ‘permanent collection’. A few months later, Feaver participated in a BBC film about the Group, told through the stories of its three surviving founder members, Jimmy Floyd, Oliver Kilbourn and Harry Wilson. The following year, an exhibition of the Group’s work opened in Durham before going on tour to Sunderland, Sheffield, Manchester and Cardiff, showing, finally, at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in April 1973. The ‘permanent collection’ later travelled to Germany and the Netherlands. In 1979 it became the first western exhibition in Communist China, selected as an example of British ‘workers’ art’.

In 1981, coal production at Woodhorn Colliery finally ceased. In 1982 increased rent forced Kilbourn, by that time the only surviving founder member, to give up the hut. The Group had run its course. ‘The urge to bear witness, to paint for the record,’ writes Feaver, ‘had faded’. Ten years later what Wilson called the ‘great big industry below’ had all but disappeared, following the pitmen painters into history. Woodhorn is now the site of a £16 million museum and archive complex, opened in October (2006). A collection of around 80 of the Ashington Group’s works is one of its opening exhibitions (and will remain at Woodhorn for 18 months). The present-day trustees of the Ashington Group raised more than £34,000 to reframe the paintings to hang in the gallery. According to Ian Lavery, President of the National Union of Mineworkers and one of the trustees, the paintings evocatively ‘tell a story of life underground and in the mining villages of Northumberland, in a way words can never do. Together they are a remarkable social record of time gone by, and I hope people young and old continue to marvel at them when they visit Woodhorn.’ Some such legacy would certainly have pleased a group of painters who painted for themselves but with a view to inspiring others to do the same.

William Feaver’s definitive study of the Ashington Group, Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-84 is published by Chatto and Windus (London, 1988). This article was first published in Adults Learning.