Tyne & Wear

Pitmen Painters' art re-imagined by Ashington photographers

Playtime Image copyright Ashington Group Trustees/Ashington District Star
Image caption The works of the Pitmen Painters have been used as the inspiration for a collection of photographic reinventions of the original paintings

The Pitmen Painters, a celebrated group of miners-turned-artists, rose to prominence in the 1930s with their work chronicling life in the coal-mining town of Ashington, Northumberland. Now, inspired by their example, photographers are capturing the spirit of a community decimated by that industry's decline.

"The dole office was packed out. Nightlife turned into a ghost town as pubs became empty. Drugs began to thrive. I remember being scared of the glue-sniffers.

"Then it just became part of the local culture to smoke cannabis, and class A drugs were easy to find as drug dealers were everywhere."

Myrle Howard, the daughter of a miner, was 13 when Ashington Colliery shut in 1988, four years after the miners' strike came to an end.

Her father Ron would later lose his job at nearby Lynemouth Colliery, which closed in 1994. He became depressed, "which was hard for us five kids to understand - why Mam and Dad were fighting over bills not being paid, living off economy burgers and dry mash potato".

Howard, along with photographer Julian Germain, is now using her camera to record life in a one-industry town that has little in the way of any industry left.

The project, which produces the Ashington District Star newspaper, was commissioned through the bait programme at Woodhorn with investment from Arts Council England.

Image copyright Ashington Group Trustees/Ashington District Star
Image caption Germain said he didn't want to create an exact copy of this work. He says his image of a working-class family at Christmas shows little has changed, with relatives celebrating "in the same space"
Image copyright Ashington Group Trustees/Ashington District Star
Image caption One of the most noted Pitmen works, by George McLean, was the inspiration for this photograph by Julian Germain. He said: "At the time of the painting the state did not provide carers but now, as manufacturing and retail are declining, the care industry is burgeoning"
Image copyright Ashington Group Trustees/Ashington District Star
Image caption Fred Laidler painted Fish and Chips (it is not believed to be a particular chip shop) in 1948. It was re-imagined nearly 70 years later, showing the chippy is still at the heart of the community
Image copyright Ashington Group Trustees/Ashington District Star
Image caption Saturday night "at the club" - 70 years apart
Image copyright Ashington Group Trustees/Ashington District Star
Image caption The photographers say they have "documented things that are actually happening - they are not stunts"
Image copyright Ashington Group Trustees/Ashington District Star
Image caption "They weren't outsiders looking in - they were genuine - actually living the lives they were painting"

The Pitmen Painters

-Founded in Northumberland in the early 1930s as a Workers' Educational Association class giving mining families access to the arts

-The Pitmen paintings were inspired by the artists' own lives

-The group held its first exhibition in 1936 at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle and many of the paintings are on permanent display at Woodhorn Museum in Ashington.

-Written by Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall, their story was turned into a play that was performed at the Royal National Theatre in London and on Broadway

Image copyright Ashington District Star
Image caption The work features in the Ashington District Star, a photographic journal and newspaper produced by an editorial team of local people that aims to inspire artists of all ages and abilities to document the town
Image copyright Ashington District Star
Image caption Germain said the town was socially deprived because of the loss of its colliery, but that did not mean people were "miserable"
Image copyright Ashington District Star
Image caption Ashington suffered another jobs blow when the Lynemouth smelting plant shut in 2012

A spokeswoman for development company Arch said reviving Ashington remained an uphill struggle.

"The town has been in a state of decline for many years," she said.

"The loss of coal mining and associated industries created a fundamental imbalance between the need for jobs and the supply of them."

For Myrle Howard, who moved to Greece for several years, some of the problems associated with the town are rooted in a pessimism born of the gradual decline of the coal-mining industry.

"My parents had very little hopes for my future and so I felt they didn't drive me to do well in my education as they felt there would be no jobs at the end of it," she recalls.

"I find now on social media sites, the majority of my friends have terrible grammar."

Image copyright Ashington District Star
Image caption Ashington has suffered its hardships but the people have a great capacity for joy, Myrle Howard says
Image copyright Ashington District Star
Image caption Howard said more jobs were now available in Ashington, but people needed the "drive" to get them

But she remains hopeful: "I finally moved back and now feel more jobs have been created and money is being invested wisely in our local community.

"If people really want to find work, they can. However, many people just don't have the education and drive."


Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Famous sons - Ashington brothers Bobby and Jack Charlton played for England in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups

Ashington

-One of the largest towns in Northumberland with a population of 28,000, it grew from a few farms in the early 19th Century

-Its colliery opened in 1867 and shut in 1988

-At one point, Ashington was the largest mining village in the world, according to Ashington Tourist Information

-Famous sons of the town include World Cup-winning footballers Sir Bobby and Jack Charlton, England fast bowler Steve Harmison and Newcastle United legend Jackie Milburn


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