In 1934 a small adult class at the mining village of Ashington in Northumberland was studying evolution at a Workers Educational Association class.
The men declared an interest in studying something different and so Robert Lyon (1894-1978) of Durham University, whose mottos were “learn through doing” and “paint what you know”, was dispatched to run an art appreciation class.
Harry Wilson, a member of the group stated: “We felt we were at a dead end, so we started on Art.”
Lyon started by showing slides of Michelangelo’s work but after a few sticky sessions changed direction, the members experimenting with art techniques, initially lino-cutting.
In 1935 the members visited London, many for the first time, to see the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate and in 1936 the class named itself the Ashington Group and held its first exhibition at Armstrong College in Newcastle upon Tyne. The members paintings gradually centred on their daily lives recording their surroundings.
1 The Ashington group at work 1938. 2 The group visit the National Gallery, London in 1948.
Meanwhile in Bolton Tom Harrisson was leading his mass observation project ‘Worktown’, one aim of which was to bring art to working men and women. Harrisson visited Lyon, sensing that the Ashington Group was well placed to establish a north-eastern division of Mass Observation. In September 1938, Harrisson, and artist Julian Trevelyan stayed for a week in Ashington with the leader of the group, George Brown, a painter and joiner. As well as meeting many members of the group, they were taken down a coal mine to see the reality of life at the coal face.
A further exhibition, ‘Unprofessional Painting’, was mounted a few weeks later under the aegis of Harrisson, Trevelyan and photographer Humphrey Spender in an educational centre in Gateshead. Harrisson’s public school staff caused offence in Ashington by staying with families and not offering rent. They left beer which the temperate Independent Labour party artists did not touch.
Having had little formal training himself, Trevelyan was fascinated by these self-taught painters, believing strongly that anyone could be an artist. In 1939, shortly after resigning from the London Surrealist Group, he organised an exhibition of their work at the Peckham Health Centre.
Julian Trevelyan. ‘Sheds’ 1939. The Miners 1943. Photos by Humphrey Spender. 1 A man cultivates leeks on an allotment in Ashington, Behind him huts for racing pigeons and the colliery are visible. 2 Huts for racing pigeons by allotments in Ashington. Humphrey Spender took the photograph during Mass Observation’s trip to meet the Pitmen Painters. © Bolton Council. From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services
The exhibitions were a great success but then war came, and Lyon departed to become Principal of Edinburgh College of Art, the group having to carry on as best it could. In 1943 the group shifted a hut from Longhorsley to Ashington and met weekly trying sculpture and dabbling in abstraction, but they ultimately remained loyal to painting simply what they knew best – Ashington!
1 Olive Kilbourn ‘Ashington Colliery’. 2 Harry Wilson ‘The Committee Meeting’. 3 Leslie Brownrigg ‘The Miner’.
New members came along in the late 40’s, the group continued to exhibit, the proceeds from sales going to provide art materials and the upkeep of the hut. The paintings that were regarded as the best were kept at the hut in the permanent collection.
In 1975 the group was rediscovered and popularised by William Feaver, who recorded their history. The Permanent Collection toured China, Germany and the Netherlands in 1980. The Ashington Colliery shut in 1988, four years after the miners’ strike came to an end.
Feaver’s book – Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984, was adapted into a play by Lee Hall best known for writing the 2000 film Billy Elliot. After premiering in Newcastle in 2007 the production transferred to the National Theatre in London and opened on Broadway in September 2010. It won the 2008 Evening Standard Award for Best Play.
In 2007 after long negotiations and extra fund-raising of £40,000, the permanent collection found a permanent home at the Woodhorn Colliery Museum complex.
Graham Bennison, September 2020.
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