William Feaver

‘Seeing by doing’

William Feaver explains how his book ‘Pitmen Painters’ inspired a new play at the National

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William Feaver explains how his book ‘Pitmen Painters’ inspired a new play at the National

‘It means knaaing what to de.’

This is Jimmy Floyd speaking, his Ashington accent spelt out, his words — more dialect than dialectic — written by Lee ‘Billy Elliot’ Hall. In Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, newly transferred from Live Theatre, Newcastle, to the National Theatre, the ‘Jimmy Floyd’ character is more canny, more droll, than the man I remember from 37 years ago when I first came across the Ashington Group.

The actual Jimmy, retired after 60 years down the pit, had a perky air and a slight speech impediment. ‘One time I used to paint drab sort of pictures,’ he told me. ‘But now I like a bit colour in them.’ By way of example, his ‘Miner’s Hobby’, done in enamel paint, shows the allotments off Woodhorn Road, cabbages plumping and leeks coming on a treat behind the red-and-orange-striped pigeon cree where a pigeon feeds from its owner’s hand. Since Jimmy’s time the pit heap in the background has been levelled and the winding gear of Woodhorn colliery beside it has been refurbished as the centrepiece of the Woodhorn Colliery Museum, where a hundred or so paintings kept together by the Ashington Group are on permanent display.

The journey from Newcastle to Ashington took longer than I’d reckoned that snowy February night in 1971. Harry Wilson had drawn me a map showing the Co-op on Central Woodhorn Road; their hut was just past that, off to the left, down a track, next to the Veterans. It was too dark to see the ‘Ashington Art Group’ sign over the door but I could hear a murmuring inside and there they were, six or seven of them, still in overcoats, settling themselves and getting the fire going. One pointed out the key sentence of a statement posted on the chimneybreast: ‘Pictures were painted based on personal experience & then discussed by the members.’ And then, from under tables and piles of clutter, out came pictures of pit and pit village, pictures of hewing and shifting, joinery and smithying, pictures of washing, baking and rug-making, pictures of football and whippet racing, pictures detailing an entire way of life.

Dusted down, the paintings were quite something. Many were plain naive; others were not unrelated to Stanley Spencer or to Paul or John Nash, or Cézanne even. There was a warmth of endeavour, an eagerness to record a world rarely, if ever, penetrated by professional painters, or photographers. Jimmy Floyd brought out his ‘Bait Time’, showing a pony nosing a bite to eat from the putter lad, its co-worker. Fred Laidler, a colliery joiner, showed me a picture he had done of a dead pony brought to the surface in a tub: a sight, he said, that had never been recorded.

Oliver Kilbourn, quiet-spoken with a dense Ashington drawl, told me that ‘personal experience’ hadn’t been the point, initially. They had begun to paint, back in the Thirties, only in order to appreciate other art. But painting had become a passion. ‘A funny thing, once you’ve painted a picture, you feel it’s part of your life, you know.’

‘Knaaing what to de’; ‘knowing what to do.’

At the beginning, autumn 1934, they hadn’t a clue. Jimmy Floyd wasn’t there at the first meeting of the Workers Educational Association Art Appreciation class in the Ashington YMCA hut, nor Oliver Kilbourn (he was on back shift), and Fred Laidler didn’t join until ten years later. The first few weeks were useless anyway. The tutor assigned to them, Robert Lyon, Master of Painting at Armstrong College, Newcastle, tried slides of Michelangelo, etc. on them but failed to impress. Flummoxed, and anxious that the class might be cancelled, he brought in a couple of his own students (listing them as ‘unemployed’) to keep the numbers up. But then it struck him that, given their lack of artistic awareness, perhaps he could turn this sort of innocence to advantage. What if he set them practical exercises to do? These were men confident, presumably, when working with their hands: let them do lino-cuts.

It was a start. The lino-cutting, however, soon gave way to painting, using walpamur mainly on bits of cardboard or ply and, since the paintings were done only to serve as items for discussion, there was no preciousness to them. Delighted by the enthusiasm he had inspired, Lyon proceeded to spread the word about this ‘seeing by doing’. Helen Sutherland, P&O heiress and an idealist patron of the arts, who lived at Rock Hall quite near Ashington, invited the class over for tea. ‘In came this sensitive, eager, receptive group of men,’ she wrote. ‘A long procession it seemed, with beautiful, natural, but ceremonious manners. We looked at pictures; we had some music and immense talk and tea!’

Having showed them her Mondrian, her Courbet, her Henry Moores and Ben Nicholsons, she arranged for them to go to London one weekend at her expense. For most of them this was their first time in London; for some their first time south of the Tyne. They were shown round the Chinese exhibition at the Royal Academy, taken to the exemplary new Larkhall housing estate and the Tate, and ended up with tea and madrigals at the Hampstead home of a Tate curator, Jim Ede.

Invited to broadcast and hailed as vanguard, if not fifth-column, working-men artists, the class evolved into the Group. Inevitably (this being the late Thirties) they attracted Tom Harrisson and his Mass Observation outfit, reporting on ‘ordinary’ lives. Pigeonholed ‘unprofessional painters’, they became the focus of exhibitions and debates. During the war, when the idea of an Arts Council developed, they were picked on as model recipients of cultural provision. Robert Lyon, meanwhile, completed an MA thesis on ‘The Appreciation of Art through the Visual and Practical Approach’ and went off to run Edinburgh College of Art. Left to their own devices the Group decided that they could do without Arts Council patronage and exemplar status. By the end of the war they had their own hut in Ashington and a set of rules, among which (‘3g’) was the establishment of ‘a representative and permanent collection of members’ works of art’. That collection filled the hut.

When I met them they were still meeting on Monday nights to comment on new paintings (they tried sculpture and abstraction) and to look at slides made by Oliver Kilbourn, everything from Lascaux to Bridget Riley. We made a film, directed by Tristram Powell; someone in the Chinese Embassy saw it on the BBC and in 1980 the permanent collection went to China for showing in the Beijing Art Gallery and in Shansi and Liaoning provinces. The paintings were also exhibited in Berlin as Englische Arbeiterkunst.

In 1983 the National Coal Board decided to increase the ground rent for the hut from ten bob a year to a more imposing amount. The last surviving group members decided not to continue and the hut was dismantled shortly before the miners’ strike and the end of Ashington as a live mining community.

Two years ago in the Charing Cross Road, Lee Hall came across a copy of Pitmen Painters, my book on the Group, first published in 1988, and decided that here was a story of touching significance, local and universal. For dramatic economy he cut down the class size from 20 or so to five. The characters bear the original names but, understandably, have exacerbated characteristics. Ian Kelly’s ‘Robert Lyon’ is slightly less officer material, I suspect, than the original. Oliver Kilbourn, as I knew him, could have been played by the equally elderly Alec Guinness but on stage he’s a young man and, besides doing the Ashington accent proud, Chris Connel brings out his thirst for knowledge and pride in accomplishment. His frustr ation, too. As Oliver wrote to me once: ‘I think it may be because life was so terribly hard in those days that we may have thought surely something good must come out of all this endurance.’

The National Theatre exhibition Ashington Group: The Pitmen Painters runs from 19 May until 25 June, and the play opens at the Cottesloe on 21 May.