Drawn from the Pits, curated by staff and volunteers at the National Coal Mining Museum for England, highlights the work of seven artists who were all miners or who had worked in the coal industry and drew on their working experiences. The temporary exhibition, on until 4 July, showcases the variety of work produced by these men, who all turned to art for different reasons, to draw on both the positive and difficult aspects of life down the pit.
For some, such as Tom Lamb, who sketched portraits underground of his workmates and his brother Jacky using sketchbooks rescued from a Newcastle warehouse bombed out in the second world war, it was a lifelong hobby.
Others came to art as part of their recovery from industrial accidents or chronic pain brought on by a lifetime of backbreaking work. The exhibition points out that art therapy wasn’t a recognised discipline when most of the artists were practising and several of them had turned to art to help them recuperate from work-related injury or to come to terms with their experiences in what had been dangerous and difficult working lives.
Art for everyone
Although none of the seven had professional training, the exhibition is careful not to use the term “amateur” artists. Its mission, as outlined in the introductory text, is to show “art is for everyone”, either as artist or spectator, whether or not they have had the benefit of formal training. Like the Ashington group, which was celebrated in Lee Hall’s famous play The Pitmen Painters, several of the featured artists had honed their skills in sketching groups and art clubs that served local communities as part of the workers’ education movement.
Tom McGuiness and Norman Cornish were part of the Spennymoor sketching group in the pit village of Spennymoor in County Durham. Lamb had no formal training, but was driven by a passion for art that started in childhood and he held his first exhibition on the whitewashed walls of the pit, painting in axle grease and impressing his fellow miners with his skills.
The exhibition highlights both the perils of working down the pit as well as more mundane parts of the job. The contrast in mood and colour between artworks depicting these themes is striking. Waiting for News by Tom McGuiness is a particularly sultry, powerful work showing the anxious faces of miners’ wives, perhaps awaiting word of their husbands following an accident at the pit.
Of the pieces that capture the more everyday topics, mealtime – known by mining folk as snaptime – is a focus of several works. Norman Phillip’s Mealbreak and Harry Malkin’s Snaptime capture the intensity of male friendship and camaraderie, as well as the oppressive heat and darkness of the pit. Striking lighting features in many of the works, contrasting the darkness of the pit with the light of a miner’s lamp and the heat of the mine.
In all of the landscape works depicting mining villages, the pithead winding gear is always visible, showing how the coalfield dominates everything for those that lived in these communities, as one of the volunteer curators points out in his interpretation of David Wilders’ linocut Headgear. Allotment scenes feature in several works – another hugely popular pastime for miners – that capture the simultaneously rural and urban feel of pit villages.
The exhibition spans working life in most of the second half of the 20th century, including the Bevin Boys (those who were conscripted to work in the mines to increase coal production after the second world war) and the wartime and postwar heyday of the nationalised coal industry through to its decline.
However, there is only one work that really seems to allude to the struggles of the mining industry in the 1980s during the turbulent years of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.
David Wilder’s print The Last Coal Train feels particularly poignant, signalling the end of an era for the lives these artists had known and with which they no doubt had complex relationships, causing some of them incredible physical pain but also the inspiration to make moving, poignant work.
The exhibition is small and understated and I would have liked to have seen more thematic interpretation of the works themselves.
However, in letting the images speak for themselves, showing that art is for everyone, the works stay with you as you leave the darkened gallery space and emerge into the daylight, reflecting on the contrast of light and shade you’ve just seen depicted.
Another show I saw while I was at the museum was Women in the Miners’ Strike. This small but powerful display was almost hidden among a number of newly reinterpreted displays in the Mining Lives gallery, which shed light on all aspects of life down the pit and their impact on mining communities.
I was pointed in the direction of the Women in the Miners’ Strike exhibition by a helpful guide who said I could have witnessed the “real thing” as Ann Scargill – wife of the former National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leader Arthur Scargill – who had been instrumental in the Women Against Pit Closures movement, had been in that morning. This isn’t surprising for a museum steeped in living history where most guides are ex-miners. Until the last lockdown, they had been offering surface tours of the pithead offices, baths, stables and machinery, because underground tours are unavailable due to pandemic restrictions.
Women in the Miners’ Strike was the result of an impressive and wide-ranging oral history project, a partnership between the museum, University College London and the University of Reading, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project aimed to redress the balance of the history of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, shedding light on the women whose lives were inextricably changed forever and how they helped to shape the course of events.
The oral histories were displayed alongside campaign material from Women Against Pit Closures. There were several powerful photos by photojournalist John Harris, with one depicting a policeman on horseback wielding a baton and about to strike Lesley Boulton, a Women Against Pit Closures campaigner at the notorious Battle of Orgreave, a violent confrontation in 1984 between police and protesters at the Orgreave Coking Plant, South Yorkshire. There was also a beautifully illustrated poster for the pit camp at Houghton Main colliery near Barnsley (made famous to those outside South Yorkshire by the film Brassed Off) just before its closure in 1993.
There are so many great stories in this project that I was left wanting to find out more and the items felt slightly constrained by the small exhibition space. But doubtless the museum will delve into this rich archive of stories in the future to help redress the balance of the story of the miners’ strike, which has been told largely from the male perspective.