Nostalgia: Reputation grows for artist Tom McGuinness

LEAFING through a catalogue of the forthcoming sale at Tennants Auctioneers, readers can’t fail to be struck by the oil paintings by artist Tom McGuinness.

Pitmen painters painting Tom McGuinness - Durham pit village 1954

LEAFING through a catalogue of the forthcoming sale at Tennants Auctioneers, readers can’t fail to be struck by the oil paintings by artist Tom McGuinness.

Pit scenes and mining town landscape are depicted in vivid colour. There’s an intensity and emotion that makes them at once beautiful and, in the case of one depicting a miner working on his side underground, claustrophobic.

To this very untutored eye there seems a hint of Van Gogh in the way the paint has been used. There are a number of his etchings and paintings up for auction with sale estimates ranging from just £200 to £4,000.

“That’s cheap,” commented Gillian Wales, who knows a thing or two about Tom having written two books about him with Dr Robert McManners. “They usually go for much more than that. Well worth an investment.”

Gillian first came across Tom in the early 1970s at the library where she worked in Woodhouse Close, Bishop Auckland.

“He was a very quiet, unassuming man and I noticed he was taking out books on artists and screen printing,” she said.

“Then one day he came in with this little rolled up poster and said could I put it on the notice board. It was for an exhibition he had on at the Wibley Gallery in London – actually one of two exhibitions of his work in London at the time. He even had an agent.

“One of the exhibitions sold out almost immediately. In the 1970s there was a lot of interest in pitmen’s paintings.”

At one stage, according to Gillian, his agent tried to get him to change his style and subject matter.

“For a little while he tried to, he did some beach scenes. But it just wasn’t for Tom and he went back to his original style.”

Tom was born in 1926 – the year of the General Strike – into a once thriving community which had fallen into rapid decline. He lived with his grandparents Peter, a coal miner, and Elizabeth in a two-up two-down in Witton Park, County Durham, attending St Chad's Roman Catholic Elementary School.

From an early age, the young Tom was a keen and talented artist. His first commission was given to him by one of his teachers who asked him to draw a race horse.

He had a series of jobs when he left school but was conscripted into Fishburn Colliery as a Bevin Boy in 1944.

Tom began attending Darlington School of Art and classes at the Spennymoor Settlement, where miners had the chance to broaden their horizons, and where Tom branched out into oil work.

Throughout the 1950s, he was living with his sister and pursuing his hobby. His first exhibition was at the offices of the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation in London in 1958. His images became instantly recognisable with their stooped heads and bowed legs like bent pit props. Often bathed in ethereal light, his work reflected the arduous lives of the pit men along with the danger and camaraderie at the coal face, in the cage and returning from their shifts. Although the scenes contained humour, he was far from laughing at his colleagues.

“It’s not just what you can see, I hope it’s what you can feel as well,” he said once.

Tom was always keen to experiment with different styles and working methods. From his early days in oil he progressed to using a thin glaze to give his work an ethereal sheen. In the 1970s he learned about etchings and print-making, all the time drawing on his vast knowledge of artists around the world.

Along with Spennymoor artist Norman Cornish, he became the foremost chronicler of the North East’s passing heritage.

Never believing he could make a living out of painting, he stayed underground until, at the age of 57, he took redundancy from East Hetton Colliery after 40 years of pit life.

His wife Cathy was a source of constant support and inspiration to him and he left the pit in 1983 shortly after she died.

There was also a religious aspect to much of his work – Miner and Sick Child brought comparisons with Madonna and Child. He was incredibly proud to take the commission for the stained- glass windows at St Mary’s Church in Woodhouse Lane, Bishop Auckland, the McGuinness couple’s local church. There, he introduced contemporary images into biblical scenes.

After his retirement he continued to work every day. His house was always spotless, entirely at odds with the stereotypical view of an artist. After Cathy died, he would paint at the kitchen table and on an easel in the same room. He also spent time passing on his skills to others, such as his grandchildren and schoolchildren.

He died in 2006 aged 79. His death came just two months before a major retrospective of his work at Bishop Auckland Town Hall in honour of his 80th birthday in April.

Just before his death he was believed to have been painting. His son Shaun arrived at his house in Bishop Auckland to find his paint box open, and a painting he had just begun propped against his easel.

His work of course lives on and, according to Gillian Wales, his reputation continues to grow. For some this could mean they unwittingly have a healthy nest egg in their homes.

“He used to sell his etchings at a very cheap price to local people,” she said. “A couple visiting Bishop Auckland Town Hall just a fortnight ago told staff they had some of his etchings which they had bought in the 1970s that still hung on their wall.

“People bought them because they liked them and out of nostalgia. They are now very collectible and people buy them as an investment.”

Six of Tom’s works are for sale at Tennant’s Auctioneers in North Yorkshire on March 23. Their picture specialist Allan Darwell said: “They are honest pictures because it is realism in the raw.”

McGuinness: Interpreting The Art Of Tom McGuinness by Robert McManners and Gillian Wales published in 2006 is available on Amazon.

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