An exclusive new exhibition, Shafts of Light – Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield, opens at The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle on May 17th; a celebration of and a salute to a once essential and powerful industry now almost consigned to the annals of history.
The exhibition - which features around 70 paintings, including works by renowned mining artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness – vividly illustrates the working environment of coalminers through their own interpretation of life in and around the North East of England, allowing the viewer to experience through the artists’ eyes the severe working conditions and social climate of the time.
Over half the paintings to go on show are part of the vast Gemini Collection of Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, who are curating the exhibition. Their award winning book, Shafts of Light, after which the exhibition is named, has been reprinted to coincide with the opening of the show. The book documents the work of over 70 artists – both amateur and professional – all of whom gained inspiration from the might of the colliery.
While coalmining was considered an honourable profession on the continent, the miner being seen as a noble toiler against Mother Earth and depicted as such in 19th Century European art, it was a different story in England. Here the terrible working conditions of the collier were hidden from public gaze. While formal commissioned images of mines do exist from the 18th Century, experiential mining art didn’t appear here until the 1920s with the likes of Gilbert Daykin, George Bissill and Vincent Evans.
“In the North East, the home of the Great Northern Coalfield and the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, it wasn’t until the inception of the Spennymoor Settlement and later the Ashington Group in the 1930s that vernacular mining art began to blossom,” said the curators.
“Miners felt they had something to say about their arcane world about which no one was speaking and they said it with pride and dignity through their art,” they added. “There was a danger that this important aspect of coalfield heritage would be lost from living memory. This was the catalyst that inspired us to begin collecting mining art - our Gemini Collection. Now consisting of over two hundred items, our aim is that at some point in the future our collection will be on permanent public display.”
In subsequent years the movement prospered and many of the region’s most celebrated contemporary artists, like Cornish and McGuinness, derive from their collier roots. Many of these artists were full time pitmen who still found the time and energy to permanently record their experiences in paint.
However, many professional artists like Graham Sutherland and Josef Herman who are also represented in the exhibition, produced their own body of work in an artistic celebration not found in other industries.
Also on display will be miners’ banners courtesy of Durham Miners’ Association, portraying the rich history of the pit communities. Depicted on the Chopwell banner are Lenin and Marx, while others represent Durham Miners’ support groups from the cataclysmic strike of 1984 (specifically women’s groups) and the famous Durham Miners’ Gala Day parade.
“It’s wonderful that we are able to show something with such a regional interest and regional pride, thanks to the efforts of Robert and Gillian,” said Emma House, the Museum’s Keeper of Fine Art.