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New exhibition at Bowes Museum more than scratches the surface of history

Coalmining history is unearthed in a new County Durham exhibition at The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle

Gemini Collection Pit Road by artist Norman Cornish which forms part of the Shafts of Light - Mining Art exhibition at The Bowes Museum
Pit Road by artist Norman Cornish which forms part of the Shafts of Light - Mining Art exhibition at The Bowes Museum

The hot and dark underground world of the working pitman features alongside sunny celebrations of the mining community in an exhibition opening at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle.

Among the artists whose work is on show in Shafts of Light – Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield are Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness, local men who knew that working world better than most. And what’s more, they had the ability to capture it evocatively on canvas.

Cornish, who’s now 93 and lives in Spennymoor, spent 33 years down the pit before forging his full-time career as an artist, becoming famous for his scenes of pitmen hard at work or relaxing, cap on head, pint in hand, in the warm orange glow of a pub.

Fellow mining artist County Durham-born McGuinness, who died in 2006, himself worked in the industry for 39 years, starting out as a Bevin Boy, before his interest in art drew him to evening classes at Darlington Art College. He later became a member of the Spennymoor Settlement community arts group, documenting the once-thriving mining communities, and their decline, in vivid oils and later in etchings.

The artists’ work is among 70 paintings to share wall space in the exhibition, which opens on May 17 and will run until September 21, and more than half of them come from the private collection of the show’s curators, Robert McManners and Gillian Wales.

Their vast Gemini Collection is also drawn upon in their award-winning book, Shafts of Light, which documents the work of more than 70 artists, both amateur and professionals, who have been inspired by the might of the colliery.

It has been reprinted to coincide with the opening of the exhibition, which is exclusive to the Bowes and promises both a celebration of and a salute to an industry which once powered the country but which has been mostly reduced to coal dust.

The North East scenes promise to bring home to the viewer the severe working conditions and social climate, the real recorded experiences of their time.

The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham
The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham

Coal-mining was considered an honourable profession on the continent where the miner was regarded as a noble worker, toiling against Mother Earth, and was depicted as such in 19th Century European art.

But in England it was a different story, with terrible working conditions hidden from public gaze.

While formally 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.

The exhibition curators said: “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.

“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 200 items, our aim is that at some point in the future our collection will be on permanent public display.”

Among the work on show will be scenes by professional artists Graham Sutherland and Josef Herman who produced their own body of work in an artistic celebration not found in other industries.

Also viewers will see colourful miners’ banners, courtesy of the Durham Miners’ Association, woven with 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.

Emma House, Bowes’ keeper of fine art, said: “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.”

For details of the full programme of events and exhibitions at the Bowes Museum, which is open from 10am daily, call 01833 690 606 or visit www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk


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