Art of the matter: appreciation of Pitmen Painters and their work

APPRECIATION of art, as well as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder as a group of North East coal miners discovered more than 80 years ago.

Hailing from once the world’s largest coal mining village, the Ashington Group’s story is re-told through the thought provoking, occasionally dark, often humorous, Pitmen Painters.

There’s still time to grab tickets to see The Pitmen Painters at Millgate Arts Centre in Delph

Their working-class roots were as deep as the coal they dug at Woodhorn and Ellington Collieries, a number committed to the philosophies of Karl Marx and the principles of the Independent Labour Party.

But through their work, originating from an art appreciation course and their introduction to tutor Robert Lyon, the Ashington Group’s work transcended social boundaries.

As their paintings drew fame and patronage from the rich and well connected, perhaps cleansing their conscience at the same time, the Pitmen Painters learned to interpret what art meant to them whether it was an abstract work by still-life painter, Ben Nicholson, or Van Gogh’s The Bedroom at Arles.

So too with Saddleworth Players’ interpretation of Lee Hall’s play; enjoy it for a night out at the theatre or try to discover, like the pitmen, what art means to you.

Hall previously brought audiences the acclaimed story of boy ballet dancer Billy Elliot and the Pitmen Painters is from a similar mould, opening in Newcastle in 2007 and eventually finding its way to Broadway.

There’s plenty of dialogue for the nine-strong cast to tackle and coupled with opening night unfamiliarity could explain the occasional fluffed or forgotten line.

Peter Rigney though was exemplary as Oliver Kilburn, arguably the best of the Pitmen Painters in real life and the one for whom art and its meaning provoked the greatest thought.

His was a tour de force contribution to these working-class men doing extraordinary things.

Not bad for someone who started his blog about the play with: “I know nothing about art”.

But he perfectly summed up Hall’s play when he wrote: “Not only is this play about art and miners in the 30s/40s.

“He (Hall) has put together a story that deals also with politics, social class, personal relationships and above all, about discovery.

“Art is not simply about entertaining or providing something lovely and pleasing to look at. It is about telling a story, a message.”

Ian Perks (George Brown) Carl Morgan (Jimmy Floyd), Christopher Richardson (young lad) and Addie Redmund (Harry Wilson) also contributed to the overall edification of the evening’s entertainment as his fellow pitmen.

Andrew Wilson was convincing as their mentor Robert Lyon, a level above in the social strata but whose recognition of their fledgling talent helped the Ashington Group break out of their familiar world to achieve wider recognition.

• The Pitmen Painters plays at the Millgate up to and including Saturday, December 1. For tickets, go online:

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