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Woodhorn's pitmen painters gallery benefits from hit play

The display of works by the now famous Ashington Group of pitmen painters has undergone a revamp


The legacy of the pitmen painters from Ashington, Northumberland, is a gift that keeps on giving – as became clear yesterday at Woodhorn Museum where their best works are on permanent display.

Thanks to the success of Lee Hall’s play, The Pitmen Painters, the gallery where the real paintings hang has had a subtle but significant revamp.

Woodhorn director Keith Merrin said £50,000-worth of improvements had been possible because of royalties received from the play in London’s West End.

Every time one of the Woodhorn paintings was projected on stage, the gallery earned a payment.

Arts Council England added to the sum raised to fund the improvements to the display of these North East art treasures.

The gallery walls, once white, are now grey. “It brings the paintings out,” explained Keith. “When the walls were white, there used to be a lot of reflection which meant you couldn’t see all the paintings properly.

“We’ve gone for a darker, heritage colour which particularly brings out the colours in the underground scenes.”

Signage at the gallery entrance has also been made more prominent and, before entering, people can watch a short film in which some of the painters talk about their work.

Six iPad apps are also now available to visitors, giving touch-screen access to a detailed explanation of each of the paintings and to biographical details of the artists.

Surveying the improvements yesterday was Bill Feaver, the distinguished art critic and writer who brought Ashington’s dedicated hobby painters back into the public eye in the early 1970s.

He remembered how he first encountered them when working as The Journal’s art critic.

“One evening at the Laing Art Gallery there was one of those terrible openings where everyone comes to drink a glass of wine and nobody looks at the paintings.

“There were these old men in the middle of the room and I was introduced to them as The Journal’s art critic. They nobbled me and said, ‘Please come to see our pictures’.

“I went up to see them in this old hut, which dated from the First World War and was in a very bad state of repair, and it was a fantastic revelation.

“I became very friendly with the men and started writing things about them. We did an exhibition which went to to the DLI Museum (in Durham) and then to the Whitechapel Gallery (in London) and around the country.

“That was the last time the paintings really toured.”

In 1972, with the director Tristram Powell, Bill made a 20-minute film for a national BBC review programme.

It is a clip from this film which is now showing in the gallery and many will find it a revelation.

The men, speaking with the distinctive Northumbrian burr which seems to be vanishing, recall their first encounter with Robert Lyon, the university art lecturer from Newcastle who travelled north to Ashington in the 1930s to educate the men about art.

Harry Wilson, who was an Ashington dental technician, chuckles as he recalls how they stipulated that they wanted to know about modern art, as opposed to just art.

One of Harry’s remarks is now inscribed on a gallery wall: “Twelve months ago I had no particular interest in art. Today art appreciation is an essential thrill of my life.”

Oliver Kilbourn, the most famous of the pitmen painters, recalls starting at Ashington Colliery at the age of 13 and going underground at 14.

“There wasn’t any choice really because mining was the only industry there was in Ashington.”

Jimmy Floyd recalls an inauspicious start to his working life, spending nine months on the dole.

These men, along with Fred Laidler, George Blessed, Arthur Whinnom and others, found a counterpoint to their tough working lives in the Ashington hut where they documented their lives and community in pictures.

Robert Lyon made some academic capital out of the men and then moved on. Bill Feaver then discovered them and wrote a book about their lives and work.

It was a copy of his book, Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984, that Lee Hall found, read avidly and determined to write a play.

The play took the name coined by Bill for his book. He explained: “We couldn’t call them the Ashington Group (Lyon’s name for the painters) because it wouldn’t have meant anything outside the region.”

Lee met Bill before starting on the play and they got on well. Bill said the play was a fair reflection of the group and their work.

Of the Woodhorn display, he said: “What makes this unique is that the men had this brilliant idea of keeping their best work together. Obviously they didn’t know it would become famous but this, essentially, is their selection.”

He said the paintings had been hung in sequence to show how the men had developed as artists through tackling various different themes and subjects.

The gallery display, with 100-or-so paintings, should be regarded as a single artistic entity rather than works by individuals, he suggested.

The play The Pitmen Painters, as well as generating royalties, has boosted the fame of the Woodhorn paintings.

Keith Merrin said visitors frequently turned up from overseas simply to see the Pitmen Painters gallery.

Once a luxury cruiseship had docked at Port of Tyne simply because one super-rich passenger had fancied a trip to see the paintings.

The play, meanwhile, is currently on in South Korea.

“I saw it Vienna, performed in German,” said Bill. “Some of the jokes got lost but it was well received.”

Woodhorn and the revamped Pitmen Painters gallery is open from today. Also showing is a display of paintings by the late Oliver Kilbourn documenting his life as a miner.


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