Mike Quille on the ‘Shafts of Light’ exhibition of mining art, Bowes Museum, Co. Durham.         

Deep in the Durham countryside, where once hundreds of pits extracted the coal that powered Britain’s imperial dominance, is an artistic monument to Capital of staggering size and ambition. 

A lookalike French chateau has been constructed near Barnard Castle, called the Bowes Museum, and stuffed full of paintings, china, tapestries and furniture from all over the world.

It was paid for – I won’t say built – by Joseph Bowes for his wife Josephine, a hobby artist. The idea was to showcase art, mostly decorative art, with which Capital could be decorated, made to look less brutally exploitative than it really was. The Bowes-Lyon family’s most famous offspring was the Queen Mother, and they were also famous for being made fabulously wealthy from the profits of the pits which were worked on their land.

They are no longer coalowners, but are still fabulously wealthy. The local pit village communities, where people laboured to produce that wealth for them, have also lost their connection with mining, and also are still in the same position they were when the Museum was built, struggling to manage on subsistence incomes. Some things don’t change, is the first political lesson this monumental Museum tells us.

Inside the Museum is one of the largest collections of art in the country, spanning five centuries of fine and decorative arts from all over the world. But once you’ve exhausted the galleries of gilt-framed portraits and landscapes, mostly produced by professional artists commissioned by and for the international aristocracy, you must find your way – there is no signage – to the ‘Shafts of Light’ exhibition, which is something quite different, and completes the introduction to issues of art, class and wealth.

It’s a collection of mining art by the men and women who produced the wealth of the Bowes-Lyons family and others like them, and so its very location is ironic.  As is the timing, in this anniversary year of the 1984 miners’ strike.

The exhibition brings together some of the best examples of mining art, from the last two hundred years and from a large variety of artists, men and women. Most of them worked in pits, so this is vernacular art from the heart of the worker’s experience, experiential not decorative art, which again contrasts with most of the other artworks in the Museum. But they are just as skilfully composed and executed, technically and aesthetically brilliant as well as emotionally, spiritually and politically powerful. Look, for example, at ‘Miner and Child’ by Tom McGuinness, tenderly executed in the ‘Madonna and Child’ tradition.

There are drawings and paintings using oils, acrylics, ink wash and even boot polish, would you believe. There are visions, laments, and celebrations of the workplace, painted with compassion, affection, hope and humour, including some outstanding works by Norman Cornish, Tom McGuinness and John William Bird. The panels accompanying the paintings are informative and avoid artspeak, although they are difficult to read in the low light.

Also on display are a few clay and bronze sculptures, and some fine miners’ banners, including the famous Chopwell banner depicting Lenin and Marx. Others represent womens’ support groups from the 1984 Strike, and the Durham Miners’ Gala Day parade.

Let me leave you with some questions: let’s call them Questions From a Worker Who Likes Art.

Why do we see this kind of art so rarely? The exhibition is the first attempt since 1980 to mount an exhibition of mining art, and that was the first time since 1947. Mining was the basic wealth-creating industry of the North East, and indeed for the country as a whole. Why is mining art not on permanent display in one of our galleries?

The North East has several fine galleries, including the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, and the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art in Sunderland. But they all do what it says on the tin, which is exhibit modern art. This is fine as far as it goes, and it is great to be able to see so much challenging, conceptual art. But where is the balance between that kind of art, and the kind of vernacular art represented by the ‘Shafts of Light’ exhibition?

Why isn’t mining art, and for that matter other experiential art made by workers in other industries, given a permanent home, not only in the North East but in other regions? Why do the curators tell me that they are requested to show the exhibition much more often on the Continent than in Britain? And my final Question: is there some kind of unacknowledged erasure or denial going on, of art by, for and about the working class?

The exhibition runs until Sunday 21st September 2014. Entrance is £8.50 to the whole museum.

A comprehensive book on mining art by the curators of the exhibition, Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, called ‘Shafts of Light’, is also recommended.



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