Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Pitmen Painters: a play by Lee Hall. Newcastle Live Theatre/ National Theatre co-production March 2009

Occasionally, one of the Foxes will go to the cinema or theatre, and come back inspired to write about it here. This time, Hilary has returned from a National Theatre matinee with something to tell.

pitmen_painters_149kj69kyThe story of the Ashington Group of painters is a fascinating and important one. Until I found out about this play, I had never heard of them at all. Now I feel greatly enriched by discovering their history and their work. The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall (the author of Billy Elliott) was inspired by the book of the same name by William Feaver. As a play, it started life in Newcastle as the inaugural production of Live Theatre’s new location on Newcastle Quayside. Last year it transferred to the National Theatre, and is currently in repertory in the Lyttleton until 14th April. There is an exhibition of some stunningly moving and exciting paintings from the Ashington Group collection in the Lyttleton foyer, which sadly finished on 21st March, before the end of the play’s run.

The Ashington Group started spontaneously in the Northumberland mining town of Ashington in 1934, springing from a Workers Educational Association class in Art Appreciation. The members of the class were working and unemployed men, mostly miners. The tutor, Robert Lyon, Master of Painting at Armstrong College, University of Durham, discovered very quickly that his intended format of showing lantern slides of the ‘great masters’ and teaching the class to appreciate the techniques and symbolism of each painting was not going to work. The members of the class knew nothing of the origins of European art, or the mythological and historical subjects depicted. Lyon quickly changed the basis of his teaching by encouraging the class to make images and bring them along for the class to discuss and learn from. Learning by doing, and learning by seeing became the basis for what followed. The Ashington Group evolved from this, a group of painters which produced a phenomenal body of work and a unique document of the way of life of their mining community, and which survived for 50 years, from the mid-30s to the 80s.

Such richness in this story – the Group were recognised as a working class phenomenon, and attracted attention from the cultural establishment (to which Robert Lyon was closely connected). They were invited to London, and entertained to a concert of madrigals, as well as visiting the great galleries. Rich collectors of contemporary art bought their works. The Northumberland ‘great and good’ supported their exhibitions. This was not a painting class, but a cockpit where the nature of art, and the origins of artistic inspiration and expression were thrashed out in debate, over the works that the group created themselves. The Group stayed together, painted together, debated together, continued to live and work in Ashington, resisting any impetus to make art a profession or way of life. The life they knew fed their art.

What of the play, then, as a piece of dramatic art? I owe a lot myself to the WEA as I supplemented three boring A levels with their classes in Philosophy, Art and Music Appreciation and Archaeology. I remember tutors almost as life-changing as Robert Lyon, especially in Philosophy and Music Appreciation (I had a little grin to myself when I heard about the madrigal concert entertainment, as there seems to be a strong common belief in the WEA in the power and authenticity of madrigal singing.) So I had a warm feeling about it beforehand, and mostly during. It was very well received – a lovely warm atmosphere in the theatre. The production is immensely appealing, focused on a number of key works of the group that are projected behind each scene. We learn a lot about the nature of the Group’s work, and it is an effective way of conveying the nature of the teaching and learning that went on in the Group.

However, it was very long; I saw 2hrs 45mins in the programme, and thought ‘I’m sure it will fly by … won’t it?’ But it didn’t, quite. It is episodic, covers their first 10 years, and is ‘inspired by’ the story, and so not a docu-drama – I had to remind myself of that. It had some running jokes that began to flag (the tutor always rushing in at last minute because of trains, the WEA chairman always taking out the rules and brandishing them). And it felt to me to be just a bit patronising, although it tried to deal with the issue of whether the work deserved favour because they were pitmen, or because they had feeling and talent. The five group members on stage (out of many more in the real Group) were chosen as archetypes, but flirted with caricature (the talented one, the non-miner, the unemployed one, the jolly japester, the older, deferential one).

Some of the points about class and the value of education were sensitively argued, but some were hammered home repeatedly. And some points were not so sensitively made. There was a wholly fictitious (so far as I can tell) Lawrentian scenario where a rich Northumberland heiress offers Oliver Kilbourn, the most obviously talented of the painters, a stipend to give up his job in the colliery and become a full time artist. This of course has much more dramatic potential than some of the real scenarios that could have been chosen (such as the hilarious, but possibly not so visually appealing, encounter between Tom Harrisson of Mass Observation and the Group), but is also more tabloid. So I am delighted that I saw it, glad that this story is being told in such a warm and appreciative way, but as a piece of dramatic art – not so well made.

The inspiration for the play is William Feaver’s book ‘Pitmen Painters. The Ashington Group 1934-1984’. I was so moved by the exhibition of the paintings in the foyer that I had to buy it. I have not had time to read it in full yet, so a proper book review will follow. However, I have seen enough of it to know that it deals with great skill and finesse with the achievement, personal and artistic, of the Ashington Group, and far more fully and subtly than the play with the debate that the Group inspired over the nature of art, the place of talent, the nature of learning and teaching the intangible, the inspiration to be drawn from life of hard physical labour and dearth of beauty, and where the line is to be drawn between the primitive and the sophisticated in artistic expression. The Ashington Group seems to me to be so important that I marvel that we have known so little about them in our generation, until William Feaver, then Lee Hall brought them back to life. They have done us a great service.

8 comments on “The Pitmen Painters: a play by Lee Hall. Newcastle Live Theatre/ National Theatre co-production March 2009

  1. Moira
    March 29, 2009

    I’d heard of the Ashington Group … but never knowingly seen any of their work until I googled them, when I realized I was more familiar with it than I thought.

    Two and three-quarter hours is pushing their luck a little, I feel. It sounds as if would benefit from a bit of editing.

    Still … it’s an interesting subject for a play and more power to Lee Hall for writing it. I look forward to the book review.

  2. rosyb
    March 29, 2009

    Lots of interesting issues here. I always think it is hard to represent and explore art – particularly anything to do with visual art – as a subject matter for drama or fiction. As it is a subject I am most interested in, it surprises me that so many books and plays and films dealing with the subject leave me cold. Perhaps because the dramatic idea of the painter – full of inspiration and wild and earnest – seems to me to be a cliche and yet without the romance of that idea it becomes hard to make the issues around art and artists sufficiently dramatic. I did like Robert Altmann’s Vincent and Theo – but only the long version. I also liked Frida, come to think of it. But perhaps because these figures had dramatic lives to keep your attention and therefore the dramatic romantic image of the painter can be unpicked a little.

    Hmmm. I’m off on one now. It would be lovely to accompany this review with some images. I found this link.

    But reading about this play, art seemed to be one aspect, but reviews also say it is an exploration of socialism. How does that side of it come across, Hilary?

  3. Jackie
    March 29, 2009

    What a great introduction to this subject, which I don’t recall ever hearing of. Whoever thought of having some of the paintings in the lobby was very clever, it would make the play more immediate. I would think any play of that length would be a bit too long, but I really like the idea of dramatising such a subject, if only to make the general public more aware of their accomplishments. Looking forward to the book review too.

  4. Hilary
    March 29, 2009

    Socialism – well, I would say, quoting Eeyore, not very How, in the play. I saw that mentioned in one of the reviews, and I felt that it was somewhat misplaced – more as if the reviewer expected it to be about Socialism. One of the characters, Harry Wilson, as part of the archetype embodies a hardline socialist analysis in some of his speeches, but the other characters take the debate to other places. If one is expecting a playing out of Alex Glasgow’s wonderful song ‘As soon as this pub closes the Revolution’s here’ – sorry, wrong play.

    To my mind, the play’s discourse was less about political stance than about class. It explored in great depth the assumptions of the middle class about what constitutes the wellsprings of art and its inspiration, and the pride of the Ashington painters in their position as working men. It also examines a certain working class pride, in the endurance of these heroic workers underground, and the discovery (for whom?) that Art is not just for the privileged. But then , the WEA existed to prove that the Arts, Philosophy, Science and intellectual discourse are not just for the privileged.

    The scenario that I am so much in two minds about – the offer by Helen Sutherland to Oliver Kilbourn to pay him a stipend so that he can give up his work as a miner – invokes a response from him (in character) of complete rejection of the idea that he should leave his job, way of life and class. He sees his newly discovered talent as fed by, and, in a way, at the service of his way of life and the community he belongs to. This scene has a sequel later, when he encounters Helen Sutherland again. She tells him of her latest discoveries in the art world, he is excited by what she has to say and he expresses his fear that he made the wrong choice. But she is all unwittingly dangerous and untrustworthy; she has moved on – she is collecting someone else. She might or might not still be paying him to paint and not work down the mine. Did he make the right or the wrong choice – it’s left hanging in the air. I’ve thought some more about this scenario, that I found rather shallow and obvious, and now think I admire it slightly more than I did. But if the reviewer thought this was about Socialism, I thought it was about Class.

    Paradoxically, Oliver Kilbourn, it seems, was just that bit too talented to be Primitive, and his work, though astonishing, was overlooked by curators and collectors who could not pigeon-hole it.

    Now the book will I think be a different matter. It explores the left-leaning intellectual climate into which the Ashington Group arrived. The Group became a beacon for the usual suspects – ‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead / Who was not, in the 30s, Red’ and all that. But the Group refused to fit assumptions, in certain ways, and has ended up as a unique working-class phenomenon. It did not start anything, it did not end anything. It confused the theorists – it did not fit. I’d better leave it there, before I do us an undigested book review!

    What I’m hoping is that there’s someone else out there who’s seen the play, and can take issue with what I’m saying!

  5. rosyb
    March 29, 2009

    Thanks Hilary. That comment is as good as another post. It is a fascinating era and subject-matter. Looking forward to the book review to learn some more. I can’t find more than squidgey pics on the net though.

  6. Hilary
    March 29, 2009

    Sad to say, the exhibition of paintings that accompanies the play, according to the NT website, finished on 21st March, the day I went to see it. How fortunate I am, and how unlucky the people who have tickets for the play between now and the last night on 14th April.

    I’ve corrected the original post.

  7. paddy mc mullen
    January 14, 2010

    pass this on to lee hall iv got some stories for u paddy sharons ex a good mate thanks

  8. Pingback: The Pitmen’s Requiem, by Peter Crookston « Vulpes Libris

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