Miners in Art and Pitmen Painters

by KathleenDuffy

The working miner as artistic subject is uncommon. Arguably, only miners themselves have given an authentic artistic portrayal of miners at the coal face and in their daily lives.

There are few "high art" paintings of British miners working at the coal face compared to the daily lives of fishermen, weavers or farm workers. In fact miners, even on the pit surface, are rarely represented. There are a number of interesting reasons for this artistic gap which will be briefly explored in this article.

This theme about the absence of art depicting mining communities has been explored through the play, 'The Pitmen Painters' by Lee Hall who also wrote 'Billy Elliot'. He tells the true story of a group of Northumberland miners who decided to take up painting as a way of recording their lives. The results were outstanding and give a rare insight into the lives of working miners from the men who were actually living their art.

Miners in Art - The Ashington Group

Norman Cornish: A Shot Against Time

Great interest is now being shown in the art produced in the 1930s by miners, in particular those who have become known as The Ashington Group, although there are others.

William Feaver’s acclaimed book, Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984 first brought to the world's attention the art being produced by a group of miners from the north of England.  Then Lee Hall, author of Billy Elliot came across the book and wrote his  highly successful play The Pitmen Painters.

Both the book and the play have been crucial to ensuring that these miners’ works won’t be forgotten.

 You can visit The Ashington Group's own website by clicking on this link.

But Why Are There So Few Working Miners in High Art?

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Thinking about it, though, there are few "high art" paintings of British miners working at the coal face compared to the daily lives of fishermen, weavers or farm workers. In fact miners, even on the pit surface, are rarely represented.

Why would established artists not get to grips with such a dramatic scenario? There are a number of interesting reasons for this artistic gap.

The lives of those who toiled on land and sea were popular subjects for high art because they were often metaphors for religion. A Biblical reference can add to the status of such working lives, making it acceptable to grace the walls of the rich patron.

Seashore with Fishermen by Thomas Gainsborough
Seashore with Fishermen by Thomas Gai...

Miners Were Often Seen as Social Outcasts

There were obvious practical reasons for artists being unable or unwilling to portray miners at work at that period, even if they wanted to. Lack of light, lack of room and the dangerous conditions below ground were contributing factors.

However, there were not only physical constraints preventing the portrayal of miners in high art. There were social constraints too.

Because miners worked underground, in the dark, and were never seen at work, they were associated with the underworld, or Hades, whose imagined devils struck fear into the hearts of many. Therefore, miners themselves, as a group, were feared.

Sheffield Miners on Strike 1893
Sheffield Miners on Strike 1893

During the Industrial Revolution miners were regarded with suspicion by the upper classes because
they were seen to be militant and aggressive - as they had good reason to be.

They were often treated like a different species of human being; emerging blackened from the pit, they looked, to upper class observers, like creatures from a strange land. Cartoons in the magazine Punch gleefully recorded such situations with journalistic malice.

Victorian Philanthropy and Miners in Art

Victorian 'do-gooders' not always welcome in mining communities...

 

Woodhorn Colliery, Ashington
Woodhorn Colliery, Ashington

With Victorian social reform, mining communities became the focus of many philanthropic reports giving evidence to various bodies on the conditions of children and workers employed in mines. These publications carried emotive illustrations meant to shock the public, but were regarded by the mining communities themselves as sensationalist misrepresentations by outsiders who failed to understand their world.

The Victorian social realist novels of the 1850s and 1860s (such as those written by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens and George Eliot) began to explore working class life so that it came to be seen as having its own integrity and value.

Miners, above ground, began slowly to appear in high art as realistic figures worthy of representation in their own right. Some artists worth examining in this respect are James Clark Hook, William Bell Scott and Ralph Hedley.

Iron and Coal - William Bell Scott
Iron and Coal - William Bell Scott

Realism and Miners in Art

 The Graphic, a magazine launched in the mid-1800s, with a social and political slant, carried realistic and sympathetic representations of miners. Van Gogh was particularly interested in these editions and obtained copies when he was living in England.

Coal mining. Illustration from The Graphic 1871
Coal mining. Illustration from The Graphic 1871
Miners in the Snow - Vincent Van Gogh
Miners in the Snow - Vincent Van Gogh

The Impressionists and English artists like Walter Sickert began to portray working class lives without the Victorian heroic or tragic sentimentality.

Off To The Pub - Walter Sickert
Off To The Pub - Walter Sickert

Miners in Art - The Pitmen Painters

Billy Elliot' author celebrates the lives of the Ashington Group

The Pitmen Painters may well be classed as “outsider artists” by the art establishment because their work comes from within the community itself and is not an image imposed by a visitor or, we may assume, a ‘real’ artist.  ‘Outsider art’ speaks of exclusion from the elite world of galleries. 

This is all changing now of course, with the recognition that these Pitmen Painters represent a lost  world, one that flourished and died in a very short space of historical time. These paintings are important historical documents. 

The Ashington Group of pitmen painters now have a permanent place in art history. You can see the majority of works by the Ashington Group in a purpose-designed gallery at the Woodhorn Colliery Museum, Ashington, Northumberland.

Watch a Short Interview with Lee Hall

He Talks about how he came to write 'The Pitmen Painters'

In particular, ex-miner, Norman Cornish, is regarded as the greatest living artist of mining life. His work, and those of his fellow miner artists, is extremely important today because of the closure of the pits and the loss of the community life that was once so strong.

You can see a collection of his paintings by clicking on his official website.  It really is worth a look.

The Pitmen Painters may not have been able to paint directly at the coal face - they were too busy working -  but their pictures are from their memories and, as such, are a record of the true life of those lost mining communities.

And no doubt, at this moment in time, there are similar projects gathering dust in communities who have no means of reaching a wider public.

 

 

Sources:

  • Notes from a Lecture, "The Miner in Art" given by Dr Gail-Nina Anderson at The Kings Place Gallery, London on 12th April, 2010.
  • "The Working Man's Art" by Dr Gail-Nina Anderson in Norman Cornish: A Shot Against Time (Northumbria University Gallery and Kings Place Gallery, 2010)

 

 

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Updated: 06/07/2013, KathleenDuffy
 
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KathleenDuffy on 07/02/2013

Hi Brenda - I'm really pleased you enjoyed this article. It's a hard life, as your grandfather will no doubt have testified. Thank you very much for your comment.

BrendaReeves on 07/02/2013

I love this. My grandfather was a coal miner.

KathleenDuffy on 06/08/2013

Hi Jptanabe - Yes, it's strange the myths that grow up around certain professions. I think blacksmiths were always regarded with suspicion too - their forges were often ont he edge of the village because they were sometimes associated with magic - but there's plenty of them in art! Thanks for your comment.

jptanabe on 06/08/2013

Great job! Never really thought about the lack of miners in art - of course it's pretty dark down there in the mines! But to associate them with Hades and the underworld, hadn't thought of that.

KathleenDuffy on 06/08/2013

Hello Mira - Yes, it does make a good topic as the two i.e. miners/art just don't come up that often! I'm glad you found it interesting!

Mira on 06/08/2013

Interesting topic, and nice explanations why we don't see more miners in high art. Thank you for the article, Kathleen!

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