The permanent ‘Pitmen Painters’ exhibition at Woodhorn Colliery

I first encountered ‘The Ashington Group’ through Lee Hall’s play ‘The Pitmen Painters’. I read the play as part of a course in playwriting at Newcastle’s Live Theatre (where it was originally performed). Even as I was reading the first scene I knew that I HAD to see it.

Due at least partly to the play’s current international status, the next performance in Newcastle was at the Theatre Royal. As I had predicted the play was funnier and even more tragic, when seen performed live.

During the play, slides of the actual paintings produced by the Ashington miners, were projected behind the actors. These brief glimpses, (at works often painted in emulsion on hardboard) were enough to peak my interest. For that reason, earlier today I found myself approaching the huge grey machinery; and low, but wide and slightly desolate buildings of Woodhorn Colliery. Inside, in one small room, was the ‘permanent’ collection of paintings that the miners didn’t sell or give away, and instead preserved for posterity.

For such a small room, it was a very impressive collection. As I entered, a metaphor was already forming in my head, comparing the cramped space with the claustrophobic conditions of a mine (however the white-washed walls and high ceiling are where this comparison ends).

There was an assortment of styles used. From impressionistic to pictures that were approaching abstraction. The only thing that they all had in common were the people. Both those in the paintings, and the artists they represented, were part of a tapestry of real-life situations and struggles, specific to the North-East mining communities of England at the time. This sense of honesty, and it is often a harsh honesty, is what makes the paintings so arresting.

A lot has been said about Hall’s play, and about The Ashington Group itself; mostly to prove a point that anyone can produce art, despite education and despite the class system. However I find this point of view insulting to the works. To me they seem unique and impressive on their own terms. It is the fresh and very different perception, of a group of people that no longer exist, that gathers my interest.

This article is part of my preparation for writing a longer essay about ‘outsider’ artists. Entitled ‘The continued relevance of ‘The Pitmen Painters’ amongst other outsider artists’.

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