Family wanted to recreate Ashington Christmas scene image

Northumberland photographer Julian Germain is following in the footsteps of the pitmen painters

Family sought to recreate famous scene
Family sought to recreate famous scene

This busy scene of a Christmas family gathering in Ashington in about 1950 was captured in oils by Harry Wilson, one of the town’s pitmen painters.

Now, more than 60 years later, renowned photographer Julian Germain wants to recreate it as a modern photo.

But in paying tribute to a famous amateur, the renowned professional first needs to find an Ashington family prepared to pose.

Julian, who lives in Northumberland, explains: “‘The Xmas Tree, by Harry Wilson, features a large Ashington family sitting around the breakfast table at Christmas time.

“It’s a busy, festive, domestic scene – three whippets, five children, including a toddler and a baby which the mum has just been feeding or is about to feed.

“Dad is shaving and it looks like a neighbour or relative has popped in for a visit.

“I am looking for a similarly large Ashington family to participate in a modern-day reconstruction of this kind of scene.”

Julian has undertaken ambitious photographic projects all over the world, such as portraying children in their classrooms (Classroom Portraits) and documenting people’s passion for football (In Soccer Wonderland).

Now he is exploring the work of the Ashington Group, the amateur artists who painted local scenes in the years around the Second World War and whose achievements were made famous by Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters, itself inspired by a book by former Journal art critic William Feaver.

The year-long project coincides with next year’s 80th anniversary of the formation of the Ashington Group.

It is one of the first projects announced as part of the Creative People and Places programme in South East Northumberland, which has been called Bait.

Set up by Arts Council England, the national programme is designed to make a lasting difference in areas where people don’t usually have the chance to participate in high quality arts events.

One of the great cultural assets of South East Northumberland is Woodhorn, where the paintings of the Ashington Group artists are on permanent display.

“The Ashington Group paintings are about ordinary working people and their everyday lives,” says Julian, who has been studying them.

“I’ll be using the Ashington Group collection at Woodhorn as the inspiration and starting point to reflect on the past and to create a contemporary view of Ashington people today.”

It was in 1934 that a group of men, mostly miners, first gathered to learn about art under the auspices of the Workers’ Educational Association.

Their tutor was Durham University lecturer Robert Lyon, who quickly realised that the men were unmoved by his slides of Renaissance masterpieces. They wanted to learn about art by having a go at it.

The paintings they subsequently produced survive as a vivid record of a tight-knit and busy community sustained by coal.

Harry Wilson, who painted The Xmas Tree, died in 1972. He was one of the 24 men who attended the group’s first meeting. Having been gassed in the First World War, he was unfit for underground work so became a dental technician.

Julian Germain plans to develop his pitmen painters project next year, working with groups of people to build a contemporary view of the area.

In the meantime, any family who fancies posing for his new version of The Xmas Tree should email Julian on baittimeto@woodhorn.org.uk or call 01670 620275.

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