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.

Pitmen Painters. The Ashington Group 1934-1984 by William Feaver

pitmen-painters-book-coverx8hs1jI 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.

22 comments on “Pitmen Painters. The Ashington Group 1934-1984 by William Feaver

  1. Lisa
    April 9, 2009

    “These unprofessional painters made art from their lives, painted what was important to them, and above all, painted for themselves and each other.”

    Something very moving about that. Thanks for this educational piece, Hilary. Fascinating. Off to look at the paintings now.

  2. Jackie
    April 9, 2009

    I was looking forward to this review & it definitely didn’t disappoint, it was very enjoyable. If the review was this interesting, I bet the book is terrific. Not having heard of the Pitman Painters before your play review, I was really curious about the paintings, so I’m glad you provided a link to some.
    It’s very interesting to see how the group remained humble & true to their origins. That they learned from other artists, but never became grandiose & continued to paint scenes from their everyday life. That speaks of a certain honesty.
    Thanks for introducing me to this group of artists.

  3. Moira
    April 9, 2009

    That ‘whirlwind romance’ with Mass Observation is cringeworthy and hilarious at the same time – but I think many of those same prejudices are floating around even today …

    Jackie’s hit the nail on the head with ‘honesty’. That’s one of the real hallmarks of the Ashington Group. There was an artist’s eye, but no artifice.

  4. Deborah Tate
    April 23, 2009

    I work at Woodhorn where the Ashington Group Collection is on show to the world. The story is fascinating, wondrous even, but the actual paintings give it true life. Never do I pass through the gallery without thinking of the men, standing brush in work-worn hand, painting their lives and community with all their heart.
    A pilgrimage is a must for all readers.

  5. Hilary
    April 23, 2009

    Deborah, thank you – I live at the opposite end of the country, but I am plotting how to get to Woodhorn Colliery Museum to see the collection. I feel privileged to have seen some of the paintings at the National Theatre. How wonderful to hear about the impact they have on someone who spends her working life with them

  6. Arlaud Nadia
    August 2, 2009

    Bonjour, pouvez-vous m’aider à trouver la peinture de Harry Wilson, le East Wind peint en l935 en couleur car j’en ai bessoin pour le reproduire dans le spectacle que nous allons monter à Neuchâtel. Merci de me répondre.

  7. Hilary
    August 2, 2009

    Nadia, thank you. I have sent you some information about The Ashington Group Trustees.

  8. Dorothy Howells
    October 19, 2009

    I came upon your website by way of searching the the Ashingtongroup site and was pleased to read the review of the Pitman Painters. We saw the play last week and were fascinated by the history of the group. For someone raised in the mining valleys of South Wales, the ending of the play at the time of nationalisation was poignant despite the element of cliche; the new future for the mineworkers could not have been more tainted by the leaders of the workforce, the leaders of the National Coal Board and successive governments, including the socialist governments supposedly sworn to protect society.

  9. Rina Stimes
    November 1, 2009

    A complete absence of, or the slightest reflection of the lives of, or artistic aspirations of, any of the women in this mining community. Someone should tell William Feaver and Lee Hall there were women in the story too. Probably working ten times harder than normal as their men were freeing themselves to deveop their art.

  10. Hilary
    November 1, 2009

    A complete absence in my review, Rina, for which I apologise. William Feaver however sets out his stall as writing about the work of a group of men at the start of their story in chapter 2. Here he is quoting from Ashington Group founder member Harry Wilson who in 1971 describes the starting point for the Group, the WEA class in Art Appreciation in 1934:

    About 24 started in the Group, including two girls. […] Whether we were a bit robust for them, I couldn’t say, but they didn’t last long. They came to about six lectures and since then we haven’t encouraged women to come. It’s a thing about mining districts. There’s a sort of strict understanding of where women fit in and where men fit in, though it’s breaking down now, with women now admitted to the social clubs, which they never were.

    So we do not turn to this story for a revolution in gender relations. Feaver did collect testimony of Ashington women’s reaction to the activity of the group, from Peggy Kilbourn:

    Such subjects – the stuff of Ashington Group paintings – were unlikely to please those who had no choice but to put up with difficult circumstances and mean surroundings, year in, year out. ‘Many pictures would be thrown out because of lack of space in small houses’ said Oliver Kilbourn’s wife Peggy. ‘Mining pictures would not be welcomed by wives to hang on the walls at home; landscapes would be considered more suitable. The women had enough of mining dominating their lives and frequently, when there were several workers in the house, reducing them to slaves. Many of the women were never able to go to bed except at weekends, and just dozed in the chair to fit in with the different shifts.

    I wanted to put the record straight, having not referred to this in my review. I agree that no place was found for these reflections in Lee Hall’s play, but William Feaver did not entirely disregard the women of Ashington in his book.

  11. Gordon
    November 27, 2009

    My step father’s mother’s father ( what a way to start a reply) was a painter in this group, George Brown. Very much a self-taught man, and a miner, his paintings were in his daughter’s house until she died and then my step father and his two brothers acquired them. My mother, regarding them as rather morose and ‘amateur’ wouldn’t have them in the house. However, they survived and are variously still hanging on the walls of houses in Staffordshire and Ayrshire. (as far as I know)

  12. Hilary
    November 27, 2009

    Gordon, what a wonderful comment! I am delighted that you have found this review, and have brought this information about George Brown, and the survival of his paintings (at least we hope so). I’m interested at another piece of evidence about their reception, too.

    Thank you!

  13. ray-thornton
    July 22, 2010

    where could a sell my collection of oliver kilbourn and harry wilson and jimmy floyd sick of them cluttering house

  14. Hilary
    July 22, 2010

    @ray-thornton, I’m sure there are many people who would be sorry to think of these paintings cluttering your house.

    It might be worth contacting the Ashington Group Trustees –

    – to tell them about your collection, most likely c/o

    Otherwise, with some diffidence I make the obvious suggestion, that any reputable art dealer or auction house could give you an opinion on the worth of your collection and how to dispose of it.

  15. Richard Flynn
    September 24, 2010

    In the early eighties I was exploring Ashington looking for a potential landscape. There were garden allotments as far as the eye could see with the pithead in the background. Finding a vantage point I climbed a fence to paint it from the garden leek trench. Eventually, a miner on a bike came by saying “your in a very famous artists garden there mind” knowing his work I said, it wouldnt be Jack Harrisons by any chance. “The very man”, came the reply. I waited for Jack and that evening and spent 2 hours looking through paintings with Jack. His kitchen and living room were full. at the end I thanked him for showing me his amazing collection. He said “Hey, you havent seen the work upstairs yet, I keep the best stuff up there”

  16. Hilary
    September 24, 2010

    @Richard, what a lovely coda to this piece! That’s a wonderful piece of history to add to the story of the Ashington Group. Thank you.

  17. Sue
    October 8, 2010

    We have a special programme about The Pitmen Painters going out on Monday 11 October on BBC One NE (19:30) and nationwide on the BBC iPlayer (from Tuesday).

    The Pitmen Painters: a Brush with Broadway:
    A group of Geordie actors have the chance of a lifetime, taking their smash hit play – ‘The Pitmen Painters’ – to the States. Lee Hall’s production won plaudits and prizes for the story of a group of miners turned artists when it premiered in the North-East. They took it to London’s National Theatre and audiences loved it, but now they face the toughest test of all – can they win over New York’s fearsome critics?

    Sue – BBC Programmes

  18. Hilary
    October 8, 2010

    Sue, thank you so much for this information. I’m sure many of us will be very happy to know that we can catch up with this on iPlayer even though it’s a local programme.

  19. John
    October 15, 2010


    Next time you visit Ashington ( Town of The Ashington Group ), call into the Y.M.C.A. and have a look at the 14ft by 6ft Mural painted by Oliver Kilbourn, the year was about 1961 – 1962, It is a unique piece of work which depicts the history and industrial heritage of Northumberland.


  20. Pingback: The Art of Seeing Things « The Nature of Innovation

  21. Kim C Kay
    January 27, 2012

    I am playing Helen Sutherland in a production of Pitmen Painters. Any photographs or recordings of her voice?
    Thank you

  22. Neill Cowans
    December 22, 2013

    my great uncle was jack Harrison.i have three of his paintings.a large one of ashington colliery

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