Mining is a well known and long established subject for professional artists, but the fact that miners portray their own working lives is not so well known. Art does not perhaps fit into the outsider’s image of miners.
In the early twentieth century art was perceived as something for more privileged groups. Miners had little leisure, and were often viewed as uncivilised and poorly educated. This view did not reflect the real desire for learning in the coalfields. During the early twentieth century many miners, encouraged by organisations such as the Workers’ Educational Association, attended evening classes covering many subjects.
The Ashington Art Group was set up in 1934 in the pit village of Ashington in Northumberland. The art tutor had the challenge of introducing a subject to miners who had little knowledge or experience of art. He encouraged the men to paint or draw from their own experiences. The group flourished. They visited art galleries and museums, and in turn their own work was exhibited in public.
They were not the only group to enjoy public success. The Pilgrim Trust established the Spennymoor Settlement in 1930 as an educational centre. Spennymoor in County Durham had been identified as a deprived and impoverished area. Two of the Settlement’s most prominent artists, Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness, were both miners and are still working as artists today.
Not all miner-artists developed their creativity through group activities. George Bissill (1896-1973) painted and drew as a child. He started work as a miner at 13, and eventually left mining to become a professional artist. Gilbert Daykin (1886-1939) illustrated the miner’s world as he both saw and experienced it first hand. He died in an underground roof fall.
Miners have a close relationship with their working environment. Their underground world, with its darkness and dangers, is alien to other people’s experiences. Many miner-artists chose to illustrate this world. Society has a certain fascination for the experiences of the miner and perhaps it is only the miner, with that first-hand experience, who can truly portray it.