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Life, Death and Art

You may have heard of the Pitmen Painters. In 2007, Lee Hall’s play made them quite famous, both in the UK and across the Atlantic, but first, there was the book that inspired the play, written by William Feaver, a former art critic for The Observer. A glib summary of their story might be that they were a cross between Billy Eliot and Educating Rita, only instead of one bright spark from a working class background, there are thirty, who labour two hundred feet underground all week long and paint pictures above ground in their time off.

There were no major disasters at the Ashington colliery where the Pitmen Painters worked, but between opening in 1854 and closing more than a century later, the mine claimed at least three hundred lives. Many were killed by a fall of stone, others were crushed, electrocuted or fell to their deaths; their ages ranged from thirteen to sixty-eight. To say that life was hard is an understatement, but for these men and boys to spend their days in darkness, barely seeing the light of day until the weekend, was commonplace in the industrial North. Immediately after the First World War, Ashington colliery, alone, employed more than four thousand men to work the seams and more than a million were employed nationwide.

Jimmy Floyd, Pigeon Crees © Ashington Group Trustees

The Pitmen Painters, or Ashington Group as they were properly known, painted the life they knew and did so with little regard for technique or the canon of Western art. What interested me about their story is that I’m always stressing the latter in my classes, while the Ashington Group’s teacher, Robert Lyon, found his students entirely resistant to it. They just wanted to get on and paint!







Julian Tevelyan, Sheds (1939-40); Oliver Kilbourn, Coal-Face Drawers (1950) © Ashington Group Trustees

Feaver points out in his book that despite the dangers of the job and the unremitting harshness of their lives, with the exception of one or two members, many of the group’s paintings are remarkably unimpassioned. This, he concludes, is because the pitmen painted how they lived and to them there was nothing exceptional about it at all. Just as Lee Hall did with his play, perhaps it takes a spectator, to wrangle all the emotion out of their daily grind – the participants may have been too closely involved.

There’s more to it, though, in my opinion. To paint well requires years and years of practise until the brush in your hand is as thoroughly connected to your heart as it is to your head. If you’re not feeling it, the viewer probably won’t either…

Diego Velasquez was a masterful portrayer of human emotions. In Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan (1630), we stumble upon the God of Fire (here a humble village blacksmith) at the very moment that he learns of his wife, Venus’s affair with Mars. The shock and surprise are palpable.




JMW Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1835) is as uplifting as it is terrifying. When you consider the number of studies he made of this scene and his numerous, bloody sunsets, you realise that he was quite the closet arsonist. In 1819, firestarter Turner even travelled to Naples to climb Vesuvius







Although he didn’t actually see the volcano erupt, in his watercolour, painted shortly after the trip, Turner gave full rein to his imagination as well as his emotions and his engagement with his subject is so complete that we find the result entirely convincing.



The bright sunlight and the deep, deep shadows of Spain and the Middle East were Arthur Melville’s inspiration. In The Little Bullfight (exhibited 1889), Melville is another spectator amongst a throng of people. The impressionist style he sought to achieve is difficult to pull off in watercolour, but with a flurry of spots and blobs, he captures the excitement, heat and dust so well that you can almost hear the roar of the crowd.


The wan daylight filtering through the ragged, net curtain. The muted colours and drab walls, the single chair and writing table suggest a simple, quiet life – the parasol and shawl, hinting that the posy has been picked after yet another solitary walk.

In A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (1907-09), Gwen John, having moved to Meudon, a suburb of Paris, to be near her ex-lover, Auguste Rodin, unerringly studies the sum total of her life. Once seen, it’s no surprise to us to learn that in 1912, she wrote in her notebook, ‘Ten Rules to Keep the World Away’ or that she died of starvation on the streets of Dieppe.





Giorgio Morandi’s entire output consisted almost exclusively of the same pots and bottles that he painted obsessively for four decades. His Natura Morta (1963) of odd-shaped vessels, plainly lit and huddled together in their indistinct setting, seem exposed and on the point of vanishing. Perhaps their fragility reminds us of our own?



Like Morandi, Maggi Hambling’s monumental Wall of Water V (2011) is one of a series that she has been painting for years. But unlike Morandi’s vessels, it’s we who are on the point of vanishing as her mighty swell of paint comes crashing down upon us. Like Melville’s crowd, or Turner’s inferno, we can almost hear the roar.






“I hope these waves become a metaphor for life and death,” Hambling said, “I know it’s a corny thing to say, but I think that’s what art should attempt to do.”

And what of the other artists we’ve looked at? Aren’t they all doing the very same thing?


As for the Pitmen Painters, who had given their lives to the mines and not art; perhaps they’d dwelt so long in the underworld, that all they longed for was escape.






Whippets, George Blessed ca.1939 © Ashington Group Trustees

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