The story behind the Mining Art Gallery
A shared passion for art made by miners, particularly those from Northeast England, led two friends to collect hundreds of works and, through the Auckland Project, create the Mining Art Gallery.
A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2022 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
Gillian Wales and Robert McManners first met around 1966, in Ferryhill, County Durham, when they were teenagers. After losing touch, they reconnected in the mid-1990s in Bishop Auckland, where Wales was centre manager of the Town Hall, a venue that operates as an arts centre with a theatre, cinema, library and art gallery, and McManners was a local GP and chair of the Civic Society. Both come from families with mining connections, a heritage that has inspired them over the past 25 years to gather a unique group of works of art created by miners active in the area of Northeast England known as the Great Northern Coalfield.
Since 2017, the collection, now known as the Gemini Collection of Mining Art, and which comprises more than 400 artworks from little-known painters to celebrated artists such as Tom McGuinness, Norman Cornish, Ted Holloway and Bob Olley, has enjoyed a permanent home at the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland. The gallery is part of the cultural regeneration of the town through the Auckland Project, which also includes Auckland Castle and the Spanish Gallery.
McManners, who drew the collieries himself when he was ‘a little lad’, has had a lifelong fascination for the mining industry and its social and cultural expressions, including what he describes as ‘the sheer majesty and thunderous, somewhat musical sounds’ that surrounded the pits.
He began collecting mining art as a young man after his brother gave him a small etching by Tom McGuinness to celebrate his acceptance to study medicine at Newcastle University. Titled Putter No. 2, the piece depicts a worker pushing a coal wagon underground, and still hangs on his wall at home. Wales also had a personal link to McGuinness, who was a frequent visitor to the library where she worked in the 1970s. Her appreciation of his art was sparked when he asked her to display a poster for an exhibition of his at the John Whibley Gallery in London, and she realised this exceptional artist was a local and began collecting his work.
McGuinness, who was born in 1926 in the Witton Park area of Bishop Auckland, drew and painted from a young age. He was conscripted into a colliery in 1944 as part of the ‘Bevin Boys’ scheme, which drafted young men chosen by lot to work in mines to increase coal production during the Second World War. After the war he tried other jobs but chose to return to mining until the age of 57 and painted in his spare time. In addition to visualising a way of life many can only imagine, McGuinness’ oeuvre is part of what Wales and McManners call a ‘social and industrial archive’ of mining in the Northeast.
They documented his art in their first shared endeavour, the book Tom McGuinness: The Art of an Underground Miner, published in 1997. When Durham County Council financial support for the book fell through at the last minute, the friends decided to self-publish it and, pressed for the name of their new imprint, chose Wales’ star sign, Gemini, which neatly reflects their twinned passion for mining art. The book was the first of six volumes detailing the mining art and artists of the Northeast that Wales and McManners have co-authored to date, including Shafts of Light: Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield (2002). ‘There was this mining art out there that nobody had ever researched before,’ Wales says, ‘which speaks to the gap in the knowledge of our history.’
‘The book felt like a eulogy to something that had gone, and it hadn’t gone,’ McManners adds. ‘The art was still there, if we looked for it. It wasn’t correctly valued as artistic work. It was shoved to the back of the drawer, and wasn’t put on display in any major way. We brought it to the front. We felt that not only should we record the style of the mining art, which was the miner’s way of getting his story and message across, but we should be collecting it, to prevent it from being spread to the four winds, and in some cases, just destroyed.’
Around the time the book on McGuinness was published, the artist’s 1968 painting Durham Big Meeting came up at auction, a richly detailed scene of the annual Durham Miners’ Gala hosted by the Durham Miners’ Association every July since 1871. Since the demise of the mining industry, the gala has continued as a wider celebration of community, solidarity and trade-union spirit.
Wales and McManners set out to acquire the painting together and, after a successful bid, were faced with the prospect of transporting it home in McManners’ Austin Metro. The only way to accommodate the very large work was for Wales to lie flat on the backseat of the car and hold up the painting for the 35-mile journey home.
They made it back with the piece intact, and celebrated their first joint acquisition with a drink at the Durham County Hotel, a landmark building that features prominently in the painting itself. Both Wales and McManners remained close to McGuinness until his death in 2006.
Working and former miners began to be encouraged to make art in the 1920s, an initiative fostered during the period between the First and Second World Wars by the Workers’ Educational Association and the Settlement movement, which set up local community groups for art appreciation and creation.
In some areas, such as in County Durham, as much as a third of the workforce were miners and many turned to art to communicate their experiences underground, process traumatic events and express affection for their fellow workers and communities. The job was challenging on every level – physical, mental and emotional – and painting was a way for the miners to relax and revisit in the safety of their own homes the confined underground spaces they inhabited during their shifts.
For the most part, the art was not created to be exhibited, nor was it evaluated for its artistic merits at the time of its making. But it did convey some of the realities of mining life. ‘Who else but miners could tell the story of working underground?’ says McManners, adding: ‘There was no other employment, so you had men of all abilities, all talents, who could play the piano, speak publicly, paint, do all kinds of things. It was just their circumstance in life that led to them working in a colliery.’
The art has an impressive emotional charge. According to McManners, visitors to the Mining Art Gallery often, ‘leave the building either with a tear in their eye or a smile on their face, or both’. McGuinness’ pencil drawing Miner and Child (1948) is a particularly poignant image, which depicts a man (a friend of the artist) cradling his sick daughter, the tension and precarity of the moment palpable. It was made when McGuinness learned of his friend’s predicament and immediately ran home to fetch his drawing equipment to render the scene with great tenderness.
Other works are memorable depictions of human ingenuity and bravery in the face of risk. One example is Ted Holloway’s Testing for Gas, painted in oils in the 1950s, in which a miner on all fours reaches into a narrow tunnel with a flame safety lamp.
It is McManners’ favourite work in the collection. ‘It says so much and is such a fine picture. This guy was conscripted to the coal mines as a Bevin Boy, and most of the Bevin Boys hated the coal mines, but he was both a very able artist, and actually loved the job.’ Holloway went on to study art at an advanced level and eventually became Head of Art at Jarrow School in Tyneside.
Other works, including some painted by women artists from the 1980s onwards, for example, and which revisit the coalmining areas after the closure of the mines, sometimes with a nostalgic attitude, have a different feeling. Yorkshire artist Janet Buckle’s paintings, such as Coalworking at Yorkshire Main (1994) find beauty in the industrial waste left behind: the towering slagheaps and quarries forming sublime human-made landscapes.
Marjorie Arnfield, a native of Newcastle upon Tyne, painted expressive images of the demolition of the Durham coalfield and recorded the vanishing mining communities, depicting daily tasks. Her Washday in the Alley (1996) shows women hanging immaculate white sheets on the line.
Both Wales and McManners are keen to emphasise that one of the core values of mining communities is trust, which extends from the fraternity of miners operating in highly precarious conditions to families above ground coping with the consequences of an industry that killed more than 167,000 men in just 150 years.
‘People genuinely did help each other if they were in hard times,’ says McManners. Trust is also central to the Gemini Collection’s activities. Over more than two decades, Wales and McManners have sought to gather carefully and preserve the visual legacy of the Great Northern Coalfield. They always intended the collection to grow organically, and everyone they approached, from artists to curators, trusted and encouraged their activities in a way McManners likens to ‘throwing pebbles into a pond. The ripples gradually overlapped, and people kept referring us to people they knew about.’
As their knowledge grew, they funded acquisitions using the profits from sales of their books. Artists including Bob Olley, Derek Slater and Bill Hindmarsh donated pieces, and a significant acquisition was made of the Jack Reading Bequest, comprising 50 works by McGuinness. Much of the art in the collection depicts first-hand experience of life in the pits. Tom Lamb’s painting Laar Coal (1990s), for example, shows a miner lying at an awkward angle drilling at the coalface. Lamb took his sketchbook into the mine, and created images underground using axle grease and coaldust.
The work of celebrated mining artist Norman Cornish, on the other hand, depicts social scenes and views above ground. At the age of 15, Cornish joined the sketching club in his hometown of Spennymoor and worked as a miner for 33 years, before becoming a full-time artist. His richly detailed compositions show miners setting off to the pit, tending to allotments and drinking at the pub.
Many mining artists honed their skills at art classes held at organisations such as the Spennymoor Settlement, also known as the Pitman’s Academy, and the Ashington Group, also known as the Pitmen Painters. The latter, which met from 1934 to 1983, participated in art-appreciation classes devised by artist Robert Lyon according to a principle of ‘seeing by doing’. Miners were encouraged to use any materials they could find, from household paint to discarded boards, and to emulate well-known works of art. The aim at the Ashington Group was not to exhibit the art, but primarily to help miners express their experiences. Art classes were also a way to keep men occupied and off the street, assuaging political concerns over potential strikes and revolutionary sentiment.
Other groups had different aspirations, and at the Spennymoor Settlement, teachers included the German artist Elisabeth von der Schulenburg, also known as Tisa Hess, whose series of lithographs of the Spennymoor Settlement in the 1930s is part of the Gemini Collection. The daughter of a general, she left Germany with her Jewish husband, the businessman Fritz Hess, in 1933, and she did encourage artists to exhibit their creations, a practice that pushed them to improve the level and quality of their art.
Works from the Gemini Collection have been exhibited around the UK, including in the Houses of Parliament, and have travelled to exhibitions in France and Belgium. By 2017, however, Wales and McManners felt it was time for the collection to have a permanent home. ‘Our aspiration was to have somewhere in southwest Durham where we could display the work,’ says Wales. ‘We wanted people to see it. I always used to say: “If there’s a millionaire in the audience who’s got a spare building that they don’t want, can they come and see us afterwards,” little thinking that, eventually, that was actually what would happen.’
The Auckland Project founder philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer knew Wales and McManners and their collection. Having acquired a former bank building in Bishop Auckland, he offered it to them to house the collection. ‘It was perfect,’ says McManners. ‘Effectively, The Auckland Project put in the building and we put in the content, although there’s more than just our collection.’ They donated 423 pieces to help create the Auckland Project’s Mining Art Gallery, located in the town where both Wales and McManners still live.
The gallery runs a programme of exhibitions and events centred on the Gemini Collection. The current exhibition, ‘Unity Is Strength: Durham Miners’ Gala’, features several works from the collection, including its seminal acquisition, McGuinness’s rendition of the Durham Big Meeting. This will be followed by an exhibition entirely sourced from the collection.
Over the past 25 years, Wales and McManners have raised the profile of mining art among collectors and museums. Fewer pieces are now available for purchase and prices for those that do turn up on the market have risen, something McManners concedes ‘may be our fault’. Still, the Gemini Collection continues to acquire works, most recently the sketchbook of an artist who attended the Spennymoor Settlement in the 1930s, ensuring the further recognition and preservation of this important and long-undervalued area of British art and social history.
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