An exhibition by one of the last of the Pitmen Painters has just opened in Ashington. David Whetstone finds out about the art of Jack Harrison
Jack Harrison died in 2004, just six months short of his 100th birthday, and here’s the question everyone always asks – what was the secret of his longevity?
Well, just pop along to the latest exhibition at Woodhorn and you will have your answer.
It is called The Bright Side, a title which is likely to summon up that jolly (and some would say controversial) little whistling tune from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, and it is highly appropriate.
The previous exhibition in this space was dedicated to the work of Oliver Kilbourn, the best known of the Ashington group of largely self-taught leisure time artists who are now posthumously famous as the Pitmen Painters.
All the pictures on the walls in the Kilbourn exhibition showed backbreaking work underground. If it was a vanished world, you couldn’t help thinking good riddance.
There are one or two paintings of that nature in Jack’s exhibition but they weren’t his favourite subject matter.
Jacqui Henderson, at the gallery to view her late father’s work, recalls: “My father often spoke of his desire to portray the world as a colourful, brilliant kind of place and very different from the pitch blackness of the pit where, from the age of 14, he had spent much of his life.”
Jack Harrison was the pitman painter who didn’t always toe the line and didn’t always see eye to eye with Kilbourn.
He painted what he wanted to paint, often latching onto the bright colours in the landscape – just as he delighted in the beds of vivid flowers he grew on his allotments.
“My mother loved flowers so my father always grew flowers,” says Jacqui.
A lovely self-portrait shows the man himself, radiant over a punch of freshly cut crysanths and other garish blooms.
Jack also painted the family budgie, Bluey, his “constant companion” because he worked in the kitchen, and Mrs Weekes, from Newbiggin, who used to organise outings and is portrayed here with plaits and a clown’s red nose.
These paintings are part of Jacqui’s own collection, which also includes The Kite.
“This is one of my favourites.,” she says. “My father used to go on holiday with the over 55s club in Newbiggin and this is somewhere there. I like it because of the mystery in it.”
The painting shows a woman and a boy viewed from behind – she standing, he seated – and they are flying a kite against a vivid blue sky. There’s also a small dog which, disconcertingly, is looking in the opposite direction, away from the kite-fliers and past the viewer.
Another of these personal family paintings is a portrait done of Jacqui when she was a girl, sitting rather awkwardly in front of a coal fire and looking just a little truculent. Jaqui doesn’t remember sitting for the portrait but says: “We didn’t have cameras when I was a child so I suppose I must have done.”
Jacqui and her husband, Arthur, have quite a lot of Jack’s paintings at their home in Ashington but this is only one source of the work on display here. Another selection of paintings, including the few showing scenes underground, are in the museum’s own collection while a third were given to the old Wansbeck District General Hospital, where Jack was once a patient, to brighten up its wards and corridors.
These paintings have now been replaced by copies while the originals have been put into Woodhorn’s care by the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Tust.
They include a painting of Jack’s immaculate allotments and various North East scenes, including Alnwick Castle, Blyth Staithes, Newbiggin, Bedlington Front Street and one tentatively captioned Etal Castle?
There are quite a lot of boats. “He liked boats,” says Jaqui, “and derelict buildings. He was drawn to things that were getting a bit dilapidated.”
Jack Harrison was born in 1904 in Waterhouses, County Durham, but moved to Ashington as a young boy when his father got a job at the pit.
Jacqui explains: “My father started work at Ellington when he was about 14 and then went to work with his father at Ashington, which he didn’t want to do because conditions at Ellington were much better. I remember he said there were low seams at Ashington and it was wet and there was a stench.
“I know that as a child he was good at art – painting and drawing – but he said that until he left work he didn’t really have time to do it. He had his allotments and he worked shifts and he really felt it was important to do things for the family, like grow vegetables.
“But towards the end of his working life, in the 1950s, he joined the Ashington Art Group and it gave him a great deal of pleasure. He enjoyed being with people who liked doing similar things to him and he enjoyed the creativity and craftsmanship.
“After my mother died, at only 63, his gardening and his art became his two most important endeavours. He would spend the summers on the allotment and the winters doing his art until he was about 90.”
He liked to experiment, says Jacqui, trying different styles and materials. He enjoyed using pastels and would sometimes use the enamel paints that model shops sell in little tins.
Always, though, he was drawn to brightness and colour, finding it where others might not. “He said he wanted to paint colourful things because he had spent too much of his life underground in the pits.”
What made these pitman painters interesting to those who have been inspired by them, including Robert Lyon, who came to lecture to them on a Workers’ Educational Association course in the 1930s, art critic and biographer William Feaver and playwright Lee Hall, was that they were hungry to learn about art.
Jack, who joined in the 1950s, was no exception, according to his daughter whose own distinguished career in health and education now sees her as managing director of a consultancy and project management company, Creative Leadership and Skills.
“My father was a thoughtful man, a seeker after wisdom and truth, I think he would have described himself. My understanding is that he was a bright scholar but with his family background there was never a chance of going to a grammar school. Be content with your lot was his mantra and probably his way of dealing with the life he had.”
On one of the information boards in the exhibition, this is expressed by the man himself who said: “I have always tried to look on the bright side and I am basically a happy man. The mining community is and was a rich source of inspiration.”
Jaqui remembers going to the pitmen painters’ hut made famous by William Feaver’s book and Lee Hall’s play.
“It was a serious place. The men were serious about their art. My father took it seriously but for him it was the creation of the picture that was important. When a picture was finished he might be pleased with it but that wasn’t what it was about. It was about the journey, the exploring different styles.”
The work of the Ashington artists spread far and wide and it was among the first by western artists to be shown in China where, coincidentally, an exhibition by LS Lowry recently opened.
Some of the Northumberland men were invited to the Chinese Embassy to celebrate an exhibition in Beijing.
Jacqui recalls: “One of the paintings my father wanted to put in the exhibition to go to China Oliver didn’t think was appropriate. It was of people picking up coal from the pit heaps in the 1920s. Oliver said it was political and shouldn’t go.”
That pit heap painting might seem out of keeping with the bright pictures Jack favoured but the anecdote offers an insight into the debates that went on in that Ashington hut.
Jacqui says her father and Oliver Kilbourn, as the last members of the group, carried on meeting there every other Monday evening until it or they – and possibly both – became too old. Then the meetings would take place in her father’s house where the two men would paint and talk about art, probably referring frequently to the many art books they had accrued during their lives.
The Bright Side is on at Woodhorn, Northumberland, until April 19, 2015. Details on www.experiencewoodhorn.com