From a WEA class to a major influence on the art world – the story of the incredible Ashington Group of Pitmen Painters is in a class of its own.
Something very unusual happened in the Northumberland colliery village of Ashington, when, in 1943, a newly erected hut was proudly emblazoned with the name Ashington Art Group. The group’s first hut had been rented, but this one was paid for with the money its members had earned from selling their paintings.
It wasn’t what you might think: the group weren’t painting pictures to make money. There were strict rules. Members rarely sold a painting for more than £1, and the funds acquired were used to buy painting materials for the club. Nevertheless, nine years after their formation, they had sold so much work that they could afford their own hut.
The efflorescence of art created in Ashington by a group of two dozen men, mainly miners, was unprecedented, and nothing like it has happened anywhere else in the world.
The Ashington Group began life as a WEA class. The Workers’ Educational Association was founded in 1903 to encourage working men to gain education at evening classes, and it organised and paid for their visiting lecturers. In 1934, Ashington had just done Evolution, and decided to give Art a go. The expert the WEA sent them was Robert Lyon, a proficient muralist and portrait painter, Rome scholar and master of painting at Armstrong College in Newcastle. After his second lecture, he realised that black-and-white slides of Renaissance altarpieces meant little to these men. He was stumped.
Then it occurred to him that since they were workers, they might begin to appreciate art if they saw how it was made. He brought along some materials to his next class, and encouraged the men to draw and paint what they saw around them. They met every Tuesday night, bringing in what they had done at home, criticising each other’s work, painting together, smoking, chatting and drinking mugs of tea, while Lyon told them about art, from cave painting to Picasso.
The intriguing thing was that all this activity continued to be art appreciation: these weren’t art classes in the conventional sense. The men weren’t being taught how to paint, nor were they trying to become professional painters in order to lift themselves out of the pit. They were miners, and they went on being miners, as Oliver Kilbourn, one of their leading members, reflected: “I wouldn’t say I had a driving ambition to get down the pit. I just stayed there 50 years — a working life. After a lot of groaning and grumbling, you took pride in your job, you know. It’s very skilful.” Art was something these men did as part of their lives, as a way to a richer existence, understanding things more, getting to know each other better. “When you’re looking at a man’s painting, you have plenty to say to him,” was one member’s comment. Painting broke the ice.
The atmosphere in the hut must have been a combination of freedom of expression and concentrated attention. “You can make a mess of things and still be accepted as a reasonable person,” Harry Wilson acknowledged. “When I paint as we do in our group, I have a feeling of freedom; here, I find an outlet for other things than earning my living; there is a feeling of being my own boss for a change, and with it comes a sense of freedom.” Discovering these “other things”, in the free space they carved out for themselves from their tough and often dangerous daily routine, they sensed the tenor of their existence. “A funny thing,” said Kilbourn. “Once you’ve painted a picture, you feel it’s part of your life, you know.” His advice to people who wanted to paint was blindingly straightforward. “Try and paint a picture of your very own, the picture that nobody has painted before, copied off nobody — something you feel strongly about. That’s what I’d say: start painting. It’s as simple as that.”
Right from the start, they “tried to spread the paint about and keep clear from the academic rules”. Brown, who made some of the group’s few sculptures, observed: “A miner who uses his eyes doesn’t need any life class or lessons in anatomy to tell him where the stress comes on a man’s back and thighs when he’s carrying a 4st weight on his shoulder.” They painted what they saw and knew: men feeding pigeons, or holding their whippets at the start of a race, women making rugs out of rags — people doing things. Most of all, they painted themselves down the pit: lying on their backs, sideways, working a 2ft seam, sharing a sandwich with a pit pony in a break, coming up exhausted after a shift. A whole way of life now lost breathes again in these paintings.
The Ashington Group’s work is quintessentially working-class art, but it has a profound message: it reminds us that the genuine art of our times is not to be found in the establishment art world, in art schools, or modern-art museums, still less in contemporary-art venues. You find art in life and not where you expect it. Even more important, the Ashington Group says: you can make art, too.
The Ashington Group’s paintings can be seen at Woodhorn Museum, Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland
From: A Potted History of the Pitmen, Julian Spalding
The Dominion Post Season of The Pitmen Painters opens in Circa One on 4 October, with a $25 Preview performance on 3 October (the $25 matinee on Sunday, 5 October is sold out!). To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.