|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
A rich seam of working-class art
Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984
By William Feaver
Published by Ashington Group Trustees, 2009, £12.95
Reviewed by Bill Hopwood
MOST PICTURES in art galleries are not painted or drawn by the working class. Usually, their lives are not the subject or, if so, they are observed from the outside. The Ashington Group is a rare exception.
Pitmen Painters tells the story of the group of men who worked in the collieries of Ashington, Northumberland, and became well-known painters. Their story starts in the 1930s when they joined a Workers’ Education Association (WEA) art class. The tutor, Robert Lyon, who lived in Newcastle and taught at Durham University, started by giving lectures. The miners, however, did not want to be talked to about art, they wanted to experience making it. So, rapidly, the class changed and the miners became painters.
The group continued after the end of the WEA classes, meeting regularly and renting their own hut in the 1940s which become a studio and gallery. Over the years their paintings were displayed at various exhibitions. They visited artists and art galleries in London, and were impressed and influenced by other painters. Most importantly, however, they painted pictures of the life and work of the mines and the colliery workshops, the streets, homes and the town of Ashington.
The paintings show their detailed knowledge and awareness born of experience. One of the group, Oliver Kilbourn, commented on Henry Moore’s drawings of miners: "He misses part out… his drawings are not of real miners because he did not understand what it was about". One painting, Open Drawer, by Frank Laidler, shows a carpenter’s drawer with tools. But this is no ordinary still life. Looking at it you understand that he knows every tool, its use and its feel – he was, after all, a colliery joiner.
The Ashington Group was unusual in art circles as being proudly working class. At times, their work was treated with condescension, a common view of England’s elite to the working class in general. But one of the striking features of the book is the sense of how strong progressive ideas were in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with its influence reaching into art and culture.
One of the group’s paintings was displayed by the Artists International Association which used art to campaign for left-wing causes, such as supporting the Spanish republic, and for peace. The Left Book Club was started in 1936 and Pelican Books (part of Penguin) was launched in 1937 to publish affordable good books, many of them with progressive sympathies. The WEA was going strong. The British Institute of Adult Education (established in 1921 with the involvement by Albert Mansbridge who had helped set up the WEA in 1903) held ‘Art for the People’ exhibits. During the second world war it became the government-supported Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts – later, the Arts Council.
The Ashington Group participated in the ‘Unprofessional Painting’ exhibition, held in Gateshead in 1938. This included the debate, ‘Anyone Can Paint’, which was chaired and reported on by Tom Driberg (left-wing Labour MP) – in his ‘William Hickey’ column in the Daily Express. Although the painters were in left-wing art circles, some were members of the Independent Labour Party in the1930s and Kilbourn painted the banner for the Ellington Miners’ branch, there is no open politics in the paintings. The paintings are of life, and that is the politics.
The book has many colour photographs, as well as commentary on some of the paintings. However, if readers get the opportunity, go to the Woodhorn Museum, Ashington, as many are on display there. The museum is also an excellent reminder of mining life including the strike of 1984-85.
Over the last few decades, the neo-liberal agenda has pushed back many of the improvements that the working class won in earlier decades. Alongside these material attacks, there has also been a cultural and ideological attack on the working class, its outlook, ideas, traditions and cultural features. Although Pitmen Painters makes little reference to the wider political context, the contrast with today’s demonisation of the working class is evident.
Alongside the struggles on economic issues, the struggle on the ideological, cultural, and artistic side is also important. Rebuilding class confidence, solidarity and self respect involves ideology and culture, as well as decent wages and conditions.