Tuesday, September 14, 2010
The Pitman Painters
I was 4 when this painting was sold, so never saw it. I did see news cuttings of it, and pre sketches my father had done, prior to putting oil on paper, so I grew up with this in the back of my mind. When I returned back to the North East in 1992, after years of traveling and working abroad, I was reading a book by Bill Bryson about his travels in the UK, when I came upon the chapter about the Pitmen Painters. I resolved then and there to track it down, and wrote to Bill to tell him about my father and my search. He wrote back and wished me good luck and asked to be kept informed.
Dad had no idea who bought it, but thought it was someone who worked for the NCB (National Coal Board). I started calling around all of the local offices enquiring about whether they had this picture up on their walls. With each negative reply, I started to lose all hope of ever finding it. My Dad was the safety officer for the coal fields in the north of the county, so I tried the Health and Safety Executive offices in Newcastle as a last ditch effort. I spoke to a kindly lady who admitted she hadn't seen it, but she would make enquiries for me. A few days later, she called to say she was sorry that she couldn't be of any help, and wished me luck. I knew I didn't really have much chance, but I was still devastated by the news.
Two weeks later, I received a call from my kindly lady, who advised me to sit down. She couldn't hide the delight in her voice as she half whispered and half giggled the news. She had found my dad's painting. She had just been to a dinner party which included her old boss, and she asked him if he knew anything about it. "Know about it," he said incredulously, "I bought it". Apparently it was bought for another colleague who was retiring over on the West Coast, so he gave Ms Kindly the phone number of the owner. She called the lady (her husband had passed away several years earlier) and told her the story, and even asked her permission for me to come and see it. All I had to do was show up on the appointed day.
That night, I celebrated my amazing good fortune by having a few pints at my local pub. I told my story to a couple sitting at the bar who worked at the Alnwick Theatre, who told it to a friend of theirs who worked at the BBC. The next day, I had a call from Felicity Finch (Ruth of the Archers fame) asking me if she could accompany me to meet the lady and do a story of the painting for Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4. I met her a week later on a cold and wet afternoon in Cockermouth. After the initial introductions and general chat, Felicity came into the room with me where the picture was hanging, so she could record my first impression. It was bigger than I thought, and much more colourful. It's a good job a radio recording can't pick up tears. The lady generously agreed to let me take it home to make some copies and also to show my parents, but she made me promise to look after it as it held a special place in her family's hearts.