Ashington Group – The Pitmen Painters

On hearing the sad news yesterday that Norman Cornish, the last of the ‘Pitman Painters’ had died, we at DoodleTribe felt an article honouring these men was due.

Most of us at DoodleTribe HQ come from West of Scotland working class families and while we are separated from this group by almost 3 generations and 200 miles the values that we were brought up with are so striking that there is no way we couldn’t feel an affinity to these men. The Ashington communities at the time of the group were made up of hardworking mining families with strong ties to the socialist values of Old Labour. Values of democracy at all levels of the country both politically and within society; to help the poor, weak and disadvantaged and to re-distribute wealth in a fairer way in society. These values are the very same that I was brought up with. My father, an avid reader, had various variation of the quote below:

“It is only when we have renounced our preoccupation with "I," "me," "mine," that we can truly possess the world in which we live. Everything, provided that we regard nothing as property. And not only is everything ours; it is also everybody else's.” Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

The Ashington Group began its life as a Workers’ Educational Association and was founded in 1903 to encourage working men to gain education at evening classes. By 1934, the Ashington Group had just covered Evolution and decided to give Art a go. The expert the WEA had arranged for them was Robert Lyon, a Rome scholar and master of painting at Armstrong College in Newcastle. He quickly realised that the black-and-white slides of Renaissance altarpieces he was lecturing the group on meant little to these men. He had to think of another way to engage the group. His tactic became showing the men how art was created. He felt that since these men were workers and used to using their hands to create and express themselves in their daily lives, they might begin to appreciate art if they could see how it was made. At his next class he decided to bring some materials and encouraged the men to draw and paint what they saw around them in their everyday life. They began to meet regularly on Tuesday evening, bringing in what they had done during the week, criticising each other's work, painting together, smoking, chatting and drinking mugs of tea. Seeing the men engaging and enjoying painting, Lyon began teaching them about art again. Lyon’s position within the group developed, he no longer lectured at the group, his teaching fed their art and allowed the men to develop their own style.

George Blessed - Whippets

Oliver Kilbourn - Dawn, Ashington Colliery, Northumberland

Norman Cornish - Sarah

By 1936 the group had drawn up a list of regulations, which all members had to abide. They named themselves the Ashington Group and held their first exhibition at Armstrong College, Newcastle. By the early 1940s the Group had exhibited in London and were continuing to thrive even after Lyon left to teach in Edinburgh.  After World War II however critical interest in the Group began to wane. For the group however their evenings continued to be social art appreciation: these weren't art classes in the conventional sense. The men weren't being taught how to paint, nor were they trying to become professional painters in order to lift themselves out of the pit. They were miners, and they went on being miners. They continued to meet weekly, producing new art and take on new members. During the early 1970s the critic William Feaver met one of the Group's founding members and began a renewal of interest in their work, in the 1980s, the Group's "Permanent Collection" became the first western exhibition in China after the Cultural Revolution.

The Group's meeting hut was finally demolished in 1983; Oliver Kilbourn, the last of the Group's founder members, arranged for the paintings to be put in trust prior to his death in 1993, they are now kept in Woodhorn Colliery Museum. During the life of the group, they were known as and exhibited as the Ashington Group. The name ‘Pitman Painters’ came from Lee Hall’s adaptation of William Feaver’s book Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984.

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