William Feaver

‘Seeing by doing’

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

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.

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