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.
I saw the play, loved the paintings and bought the book, and I was very glad that I did all three. I found much to enjoy in the play, was bowled over by the paintings, and am very grateful to the book for giving me a much more rounded view of the Pitmen Painters, what the Ashington Group was, and, even more interesting, what other people wanted them to be and the extent to which they concurred, and to which they resisted this. The book complements the play by allowing the Group’s story to develop slowly. Unlike the play, which fictionalises aspects of the story to make some points about Class, and about the relationship of the cultural elite to the world of the ‘unprofessional’ artist, Feaver’s book is more subtle, allowing the surprising fact to emerge that the Ashington Group did not arise from any movement, and did not inspire any movement. It was what it was. Throughout its life, the Group asserted its independence, defied categorisation, and refused to fit theories or conform to expectations. At the same time, the Pitmen Painters learnt avidly from their artist peers, and relished their status and the respect they gained from their admirers, critics and from the ‘professional’ art world.
There is so much about the Ashington Group that inspires the storytelling instinct. There is a symmetry in the Group’s life cycle, its genesis, and its survival. Both are cracking good tales, of a benevolent encounter between the ‘unprofessional’ and the ‘professional’ spheres of art. The play takes from this book the story of Robert Lyon trying and failing to teach in a mining community a WEA course in Art Appreciation in the conventional way, turning to the approach of ‘learning by doing; learning by seeing’. That is the first beneficial relationship, that gives the Group its impetus. Then, in 1971 close to the end of the active life of the Group, William Feaver, teacher and local art critic, is covering an exhibition in Newcastle, when someone introduces him to ‘four or five elderly men, well wrapped up, standing apart from the Friends of the Laing chattering over the wine and twiglets. These were the Ashington Group’. Feaver says to them words to the effect that he thought the Group had ceased to be after the thirties, and, through being robustly put right, another fruitful relationship is formed. Feaver spends time with the surviving painters, takes down a vast amount of personal memories and witness from the surviving members of the Group, reconstructs their history, revives their work, curates exhibitions that go around the world to China, and, after the last of the founding members has died, campaigns for a permanent home for the collection. This book is a tribute, not just to the Group and its achievement, but to this immensely rewarding relationship, the second in the life of the Group.
The book describes the reception in the 30s of the paintings, by art critics, and by social commentators of the Left. Robert Lyon promoted the painters and their work to local collectors like Helen Sutherland and Lady Ridley, and by curating exhibitions of their work, reviewed by nationally respected critics like Janet Adam-Smith. He wrote articles about the experiment in art education in The Listener, and broadcasts for the BBC. He wrote a MA thesis on the Group. There is a strong implication in the play that Lyon almost becomes parasitical upon the group, gaining advancement and reputation on the back of their achievement. Perhaps understandably, Feaver does not pursue that argument very far, as, after all, with that symmetry I’ve already mentioned, he came into the picture from the professional art world, and formed a symbiotic bond with the group that caused them and their work to be rediscovered, while also enhancing his reputation. It is a sensitive relationship, between the student and the studied, the observer and the observed, but is it necessarily exploitative? I feel the Group made its own choices throughout.
In these ways, what was happening in Ashington attracted wider attention. Feaver has an attractive line in irony, as he documents the whirlwind romance that Tom Harrisson and Mass Observation had with the Group. From Bolton (‘Worktown’) where he was working out the philosophy and methods of MO, Harrisson came to Ashington (‘… fresh from giving a talk, for Guy Burgess, on the BBC, about ‘Art and the Working Chap’ (meaning ‘What They Think In Worktown’)’), certain that there would be fertile ground for signing up the artists as Mass Observers. He came with Julian Trevelyan, and they stayed with George Brown, a retired coal worker. Even though he proclaimed that the essence of his work as an anthropologist was to ‘do the right thing’, he made various solecisms, such as assuming that beer would be the right gift to bring, when many of the Group were teetotal; assuming that the painters had turned up in working garb when in fact they’d put on collar and tie to meet him; and, worst of all, whereas Julian Trevelyan (noblesse oblige) paid ten shillings a day for his board, Tom Harrisson omitted to settle up – he could hardly have done his reputation more damage. ‘They came with preconceptions of life in a pit village; Lawrentian conceptions of the ‘primitive’; Orwellian images of hard graft […] the gritty fervour of Auden’s ‘lurcher-loving collier, black as night’ […] They had little idea of the spirit of the group.’ They did not manage to recruit the Ashington Group to Mass Observation, but what resulted from the visit was an Event that is so redolent of the era: an exhibition of ‘Unprofessional Painting’; a series of lectures on Vision and Social Realism (by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge, Serge Chermayev of De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill fame), and a Debate on the proposition ‘Anyone Can Paint’. I could go on quoting from this chapter of high comedy – I just urge you to read it.
The disciplined anthropologist here is William Feaver, who lets the painters themselves, those remaining few who became his close friends and associates, tell their own story, blending their personal reminiscences with meticulous research of the surviving records (articles, photos, records of broadcasts), and reproduction of a number of the many paintings, drawings and sculptures they created. The voices and personalities of Harry Wilson, Jimmie Floyd, Oliver Kilbourn and the younger Frank Laidler come through very strongly. I came to love and respect them through their voices.
This world was male preserve, of the pit and its work (though not all the painters worked in the coal industry, and a minority of them worked underground), the town and its business and pleasures, and ‘hobbies’: what we are in danger of regarding as stereotypical Northern ones of breeding whippets and Bedlington terriers, pigeon-racing, leek-growing – as well as the painting of them, so that we know that they are real and important.
Their achievement is a body of work which is a significant record of a community, an industry and a way of life that has disappeared. These unprofessional painters made art from their lives, painted what was important to them, and above all, painted for themselves and each other. They did not cut themselves off from the rest of the world of art, they grasped at opportunities to learn and exchange experience. A passage in the book describes their avid response to an exhibition of Chinese rural scenes in London that bored Kenneth Clark, but inspired them with fellow-feeling. But they avoided completely the preoccupations of the ‘professional’ artist – painting to please, painting to sell, painting to catch the zeitgeist and be a success.
The life of the Ashington Group had a trajectory that mirrored that of the coal industry. The pits around Ashington were closed in the 80s, and the end of the miners’ strike in 1985 marks the end of coal, and end of the Group – its home was demolished. The final achievement of the group was a monumental undertaking by Oliver Kilbourn, who outlived the founders of the group, a series of paintings ‘My Life as a Pitman’. ‘Some people write their memoirs when they retire, but because I am a poor writer and a much better artist I decided to paint my memoirs as a pitman.’ 38 paintings of life underground, followed by more of ‘what I did between shifts. These paintings, along with the remaining permanent collection of the Ashington Group have a purpose-built home now at Woodhorn Colliery Museum.
I am conscious that this is a piece about painters, and there will be much curiosity to see their paintings. They are not very visible on the Web; there seem to be three ways of getting some feel for them: look at the meagre number of thumbnails on the Ashington Group website (link below); buy or borrow this book; or make the pilgrimage to Woodhorn Colliery Museum.
I’ll leave the last word to Oliver Kilbourn, like his fellow painters, so eloquent and so secure and confident in what he was trying to achieve through his painting: ‘I was a damn good miner, though I say it myself. I was strong, and I liked the work. You are battling against nature. Not just this nature all around, but what was laid down millions of years ago. That was the life I painted.’
ISBN 9780955413827 Ashington Group Trustees, 2009. 176 pages.