Pitmen Painters: Shed to Museum

     In the early 1930s a group of off-duty British miners from the Woodhorn and Ellington pits near Ashington, England decided to start an adult education group with the help of England’s Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). At regular intervals they voted on the subjects they would study. Four years later, after finishing a study of evolution, the miners voted to try art appreciation. They didn’t really know what art appreciation was, but they liked the sound of it.

     The WEA sent a Durham University lecturer, Robert Lyon, whose mottos were “learn through doing” and “paint what you know,” to assist the miners. He tried showing slides of Michelangelo’s work at “several sticky evening sessions” before abandoning teaching and saying “Why don’t you have a go at it?”

     Using cardboard for palettes, old brushes, and cheap decorative paints, the men gave art a try. They enjoyed painting and wanted to learn more. In 1935 the group visited London, many of them for the first time, to see the British Museum, National Gallery, and Tate Gallery.

     In 1936, they named themselves the Ashington Group of Unprofessional Artists (later nicknamed the Pitmen Painters), drew up rules, and began having regular exhibits of their paintings.

     They built a small hut in Ashington where they met and painted. They discussed and voted on everything, and were open to anything. They even voted to try abstract painting, but after a year decided that abstract art “wasn’t much of a cop” (wasn’t all that great) and went back to realistically painting the things they knew. Men drinking in pubs, social gathering, dog shows, mining scenes, pigeon raising, and other scenes of ordinary life in a small mining village were their favorite subjects.

     The results were sensational. By the late 1940s they had been praised by London critics, featured in a series of documentaries, and encouraged by several well-known painters and photographers. But they were unimpressed by fame and continued to explore art using the same tough standards that they used to survive in the mines.

     Members had to agree to accept criticism (often sharp and forceful) from other members in the group, and to abide by regulations drawn up after debates which often went on all night. After the Second World War the group faded out of the headlines, but continued quietly with their work, recruiting younger members – all men, because of the strict social order of the pit villages – and trying new techniques.

     Their rediscovery began in the 1970s when William Feaver, then teaching in Newcastle, noticed some elderly, retired mine workers visiting an exhibition in an art gallery. They invited him to their hut in Ashington. Feaver was amazed. “There were all these paintings, cobwebby and in stacks against the wall, which they called their permanent collection. They spat on their fingers – there was a lot of spit involved with the Ashington Group – and rubbed the paint so that I could see what they looked like when they were clean.”

    Feaver went on, “When you’re a critic, you often get invited to discoveries which people describe as wonderful. This is the one occasion in my life when that was absolutely the case…Their dedication was humbling.”

     The permanent collection subsequently became the first western exhibition in China after that country’s Cultural Revolution. The highly successful exhibit was an extraordinary fulfillment of the belief of both the group and their mentor, Robert Lyon, in the universal appeal of art.

     In October 2006, a special museum and gallery were opened as part of the new $32 million Woodhorn Colliery complex to house the collected works of the “Pitmen Painters.” Exhibits of their work regularly tour areas in Europe. The off-duty miners who had been glad to get a few pounds at Newcastle market for their artistic efforts now have their works carefully hung in controlled temperatures, shown off under concealed lights, and viewed by a constant stream of admirers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the artwork shown, “Man in a Bar,” by Norman Costain, is part of the permanent collection of the Ashington Group of Unprofessional Artists now housed in a new British museum. In addition, “Whippets” is another painting by one of the miners who formed the group nicknamed the “Pitmen Painters.”

Published by on February 2013. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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