Mining was once a key industry in the North of England and a new exhibition salutes this once essential and powerful workforce. Shafts of Light: Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham, features around 70 paintings, including works by renowned mining artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness – vividly illustrates the working environment of coalminers through their own interpretation of life in and around the North East of England, allowing the viewer to experience through the artists’ eyes the severe working conditions and social climate of the time.
Over half the paintings to go on show are part of the vast Gemini Collection of Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, who are curating the exhibition. Their award winning book, Shafts of Light, after which the exhibition is named, has been reprinted to coincide with the opening of the show. The book documents the work of over 70 artists – both amateur and professional – all of whom gained inspiration from the might of the colliery.
While coalmining was considered an honourable profession on the continent, the miner being seen as a noble toiler against Mother Earth and depicted as such in 19th Century European art, it was a different story in England. Here the terrible working conditions of the collier were hidden from public gaze. While formal commissioned images of mines do exist from the 18th Century, experiential mining art didn’t appear here until the 1920s with the likes of Gilbert Daykin, George Bissill and Vincent Evans.
In subsequent years the movement prospered and many of the region’s most celebrated contemporary artists, like Cornish and McGuinness, derive from their collier roots. Many of these artists were full time pitmen who still found the time and energy to permanently record their experiences in paint.
However, many professional artists like Graham Sutherland and Josef Herman who are also represented in the exhibition, produced their own body of work in an artistic celebration not found in other industries.
Also on display will be miners’ banners courtesy of Durham Miners’ Association, portraying the rich history of the pit communities. Depicted on the Chopwell banner are Lenin and Marx, while others represent Durham Miners’ support groups from the cataclysmic strike of 1984 (specifically women’s groups) and the famous Durham Miners’ Gala Day parade.
Shafts of Light: Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham 17 May – 21 September 2014