Paintings and Pictures
The art collection at the Museum illustrates the coal mining industry and mining communities. They are a combination of works by professional artists and artists who were themselves miners. Much of the Museum’s holdings were produced by amateur or unschooled artists who wished to show something of their working and home life. The significance of this work may not lie in the artist’s technical ability alone, but also in its role as an invaluable social record of an industry and community that has all but disappeared.
Many visitors to the Museum are surprised to discover that mining and art go hand in hand. However, the two share a long history which goes back to at least the sixteenth century. During the early twentieth century art was championed by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). The first WEA-led art course began in 1934 following a request by two of its members, one a miner from Ashington Colliery. From this early course the Ashington Group was formed, followed by similar groups including the Spennymoor Settlement. Both organisations have played a vital role in giving mining art a legitimate place in the history of twentieth century art.
Following nationalisation in 1947 the National Coal Board (NCB) built an extensive art collection and held annual art competitions to encourage creativity among mining communities. Since the twentieth century a number of highly accomplished artists who began their careers in the mining industry have since become renowned artists in their own right.
Left: John Jones; Watercolour on paper by H. Andrew Freeth (1949), YKSMM: 1997.1121, reproduced courtesy of the Family of H. Andrew Freeth.
Right: Barry Leadbitter; Digital c-type photographic print by Anton Want, YKSMM: 2012.225.16.
From the NCMME's 'Pit Profiles Re-Profiled' project funded by Arts Council England and produced with the assistance of UK Coal.
Photography is one of the fastest growing areas of the Museum’s collection. Much of it contains material related to machines or the working function of pits, taken after nationalisation in 1947. These photographs have arrived at the Museum over time as collieries and associated firms have closed. More recently, the Museum has commissioned photographs illustrating particular aspects of coal mining.
The Museum has also gathered an interesting array of material which records the pre-nationalised industry. This includes an unusual set of stereoscopic cards used to promote a Midlands-based coal company. When looked at separately, the cards appear to show two identical photographs side by side, but when you peer at them from behind a special viewer they come to life in 3D.
Several important collections have also been acquired that include material related to important manufacturers of mining machinery such as British Jeffrey Diamond and also individuals who were commissioned by the National Coal Board (NCB), later British Coal, to record the nationalised industry. Together this fascinating collection offers an important visual record of the industry, from below ground to pit top, and the miners’ lives at work and leisure. These powerful images show the best of times for the industry but are also poignant reminders of its worst.