Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Pitman Painters

The Pitman Painters originally formed in 1934 as a Workers Education Association art class in a mining town called Ashington in Northumberland. The miners, joiners, mechanics and unemployed in the Art Group achieved a level of fame as untrained artists far from the native Wansbeck Coalfield that inspired their paintings.  With the renewed interest in their work, brought about mainly by a stunningly successful play written by Lee Hall, the author of "Billy Elliot", which has now reached Broadway, there is much to read and discover on the internet.
I won't delve into all of that here, as it could take me weeks. Instead, this is a story about one of those painters, my father, or more precisely one of his paintings which was sold at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle at an exhibition of their work in 1959. The painting is called "The Pay Check", and depicts a bunch of miners looking at their pay slips to see how much they had been paid for their work. At one side, a bunch of men are arguing with the Deputy about discrepancies, and at the other side, my uncle Adam is sitting on his haunches in total bewilderment that he could have worked so hard to get so little. They got paid by the Ton, but depending on the quality of the coal (this was always rigged in the owners benefit), the management would subtract anything they thought was not suitable.
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.
We went back home and Mom and Dad had some tea on the brew when we got there. Felicity asked me to leave the painting in the car for the first part of her interview with Dad, and then bring it in as a surprise. When Dad went through to the kitchen after her initial interview had finished, she gave me the signal. We placed it on the sofa, so they would see it when they came back in. It was, as you could imagine, an emotional reunion, especially for my Mom, but I won't delve into that too much, save to say it made a lasting impression on Felicity, who is still sending Mom and Dad Christmas cards, and has been back up to see them this last year.
The interview was aired on Radio 4 and I have a copy, which I will post somewhere when I get it digitized. Bill got a copy of the painting, and I will have my copy hanging on the wall here on Vashon, alongside a portrait of my Dad, as soon as it comes back from the framer. I'll also get a photo of it posted  too.
If you ever get a chance to see the show, let me know.


  1. What a lovely story of the tracking down of that painting. I have seen Pitmen Painters five times in the UK. It is the best play I have ever seen. I have the autographs of all the cast, as well as Lee Hall, the playwrite. Ian Kelly does a sketch of Oliver on stage each night, and I have one of those too. I urge everyone to see this play. You won't regret it!

  2. I *knew* that there was a good story in this when you mentioned it over at Hestias!! Thank you so much for posting about it. I'm off now to buy the book and you can let me know how we can get your dad to sign it!

    Ali x

  3. John, I am glad you enjoyed it. One of the actors made a trip up to visit my dad last year and spent half a day chatting about his character. I'll have to ask him which one it was.

    Ali. I'll send you details off line. He'd probably enjoy a chat too, as he doesn't get out much on account of being the sole carer for my Mom.

  4. Dear Legend, what an amazing and beautiful story! That's is so lovely. I look forward to hearing the recording. Have a fabulous weekend xx

  5. How fantastic what a wonderful story and how amazing to be reunited with the painting.So glad we got to hear about it.Look forward to hearing the radio recording.


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