It was nearly 80 years ago – in October, 1934 – that a university lecturer called Robert Lyon travelled from Newcastle to Ashington to share his knowledge of art with a group of men who had assembled for a Workers’ Educational Association evening class.
His encounter that night could have been a non-event.
It nearly was because his slideshow of masterpieces by Michelangelo failed to impress his audience of local men, most of them miners.
He could have returned to Newcastle dejected, leaving his ‘students’ to turn their attention to other subject matter. Instead, as many of us now know, he put the slides away, abandoned talk of the Renaissance and allowed the men to learn about art through doing rather than listening.
The result is a collection of paintings – some more accomplished than others, but all full of life – which now serves as a vivid reminder of what it was like to live in a community sustained by coal.
In the 1980s, art critic William Feaver wrote a book about the ‘pitmen painters’ of Ashington. More recently Lee Hall wrote his play, The Pitmen Painters, inspired by the book.
The play in particular, having toured nationally and been performed at the National Theatre and in New York, has spread the story of the Ashington men – including Oliver Kilbourn, Fred Laidler, George Blessed and George Brown – far and wide.
But in this 80th anniversary year, their creativity is reaching a new generation of North East residents thanks to a project called Scratch the Surface.
Over a four-month period, more than 1,300 pupils from across the region visited Woodhorn, near Ashington, to study the paintings which are permanently on display there.
Like the rookie artists in the 1930s, they were encouraged “to do” as well as look. The result is a new collection of 900 works of art, including paintings, sculptures and drawings, some done by individual children and some by groups.
The work will all be displayed in a free exhibition, also called Scratch the Surface, which opens at Woodhorn this weekend.
Visitors will also be able to see a version of the famous hut used by the pitmen painters who, in art circles, became known as the Ashington Group.
The pop-up Ashington Group Hut, made by North East artist Paul Merrick, will be used for drop-in activities during the exhibition.
Keith Merrin, director of Woodhorn, says: “The story of the Ashington Group is an inspirational one. Here were a bunch of ordinary working men who were able to create great art and become renowned the world over.
“They did it for themselves and we are keen that people should continue to take inspiration from that.
“That’s what lies at the heart of this project where we have worked with hundreds of school kids, encouraging them to look at the paintings but then also express themselves. It shows them this is something anybody can do and take part in.”
While working coal mines are beyond the memory of the young Scratch the Surface artists, Keith says many have family members who worked in the pits.
“Coal mining is what shaped this area. Woodhorn used to be a working pit and Ashington went from being a small rural village to becoming the largest pit village in Europe. Most people who live there have some connection with the industry.”
Woodhorn in its current form – as gallery, museum and archive centre – has been in existence since 2006. But Keith says the paintings by Oliver Kilbourn and friends have been on public display in Ashington since the 1980s and Lee Hall’s play has helped to win them even more fans.
“We get visitors from all over the world who have seen the play and want to see the original paintings,” he says.
Scratch the Surface begins a year-long celebration of the pitmen painters, marking the 80th anniversary.
The exhibition is timely for another reason, too. In 2012 a team in South East Northumberland secured £2.4m from Arts Council England to enable more people in the area to benefit from the arts. It has resulted in an art programme called Bait.
The project is managed by the Woodhorn Charitable Trust. As Keith Merrin points out, what better illustration could there possibly be of what’s achievable than the paintings in its care?
The pitmen painters, as any of those artistic schoolchildren would no doubt tell you, were trailblazers.
Scratch the Surface runs at Woodhorn, Ashington, from Saturday until February 23. It’s open from 10am to 3pm and admission is free.