The Pitmen Painters – May 2008


By Lee Hall, inspired by a book by William Feaver

Directed by Max Roberts

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd May 2008

I was bowled over by the first half of this production. The humour, the characters and the painting were all magnificent. I felt the second half lost it a little bit, especially during the last scene, but the overall impression was of a really good play superbly performed. I cried, I laughed, I marvelled at the talent for painting. What more could anyone want from an afternoon at the theatre? Well, a male life model would have been nice, I suppose, but then he would have stuck out like a sore thumb in this play.

The story is a simple one, but I’ve always found this sort of thing tremendously moving. Not that there was a scrap of sentimentality on show – these were all straight-talking northerners, none of that fancy emotional stuff for them. Instead of help and support from the rest of the painting group, the members could expect only fierce criticism and downright hostility, with the odd bit of grudging praise thrown in from time to time – don’t blink or you’d miss it.

The play follows the group from their start as an art appreciation class in 1933, through their experiments with making art themselves, and finishes at the end of WW2, with socialism and the Allies both triumphant and looking eagerly forward to a better future. The stage was a large shed, with folding chairs and not much else in the way of comforts. Three screens above the stage showed us the art works in question, and my first sight of their work almost took my breath away. Oliver Kilburn’s linotype of a miner hewing coal underground was strong, dynamic and well composed. Other works were equally amazing, for folk with no training at all. They clearly had great talent within the group, although they kept it all on an amateur footing.

Their tutor for these sessions, Robert Lyon, was a posh university type, who started off by showing slides of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo. These overblown pictures need some training to appreciate, and they certainly didn’t grab the miners’ attention. Despite concerns that the rules didn’t allow the working folk taking these classes to do anything that might be considered ‘useful’, Lyon persuaded the powers that be to allow an experiment for this class – the students were only making art as a way of understanding the processes that the ‘proper’ artists went through. The results were indeed phenomenal, and Lyon did very well out of the group, getting a proper professorship, as well as writing and lecturing on the experiment, and basking in the reflected glory of their achievements.

All of these aspects were covered in the play, as well as the fickleness of the art collectors who are always looking for the next new thing. The character of Helen Sutherland, an art collector, turns up at the first class where Lyon has booked a life model, and her comments are generally supportive. The men’s attitudes to her are ambivalent, while they’re completely divided on the subject of life modelling. George Brown wants the young lady to keep her clothes on – shop steward type, devoted to his rule book – while the others seem either OK with it or really keen. The first half ends with the model throwing off her robe and posing for a brief second before the lights go out.

During the second half we see the group’s interest in art, and their keen eye, develop. They’re not afraid to speak their minds, whether the art they see is fashionable or not, and their direct relationship with the pictures, old or modern, gave me some of the best insights I’ve ever had into modern art, or at least the art that was modern in their day. Oliver Kilburn’s description of what the artist was trying to achieve with a piece which was basically a grey circle inside a grey square, was enlightening, although the fact that I couldn’t make out what medium was used was rather frustrating. Was it a painting? Was it a sculpture? Either way, his perspective was very illuminating, and I’m grateful for that, and for the affirmation that we don’t have to know  a lot to be able to enjoy art. The other fun part was during the students’ trip to London, where they visited an exhibition of Chinese art, which has very strong traditions and rules. Lyon was dismissive of the work on view, but the group were able to express clearly what this type of art is about, showing individual expression in subtle ways, where each tiny difference from the long tradition of the past is a major leap forward for the artist. I like Chinese art anyway, but it was good to hear it championed so effectively.

Not all of the group were miners. One, Harry Wilson, was a dental technician, having been invalided out of WWI, and another was a young lad who was related to George Brown, and ended up going off to fight when the war started. I wasn’t clear what this character was meant to be doing in the group, although there was some good comedy around his participation. He didn’t get involved in the painting – we never saw any of his work – and his death appeared to have had very little effect on the other characters. He just seemed to tail off. Still, the rest of the characters more than made up for it. One of my favourite lines was in response to Robert Lyon’s suggestion that the group could vote on some matter that was dividing them. “This is a democracy – we don’t take votes” was George Brown’s emphatic conclusion.

The issues discussed throughout the play covered an amazing range. The effect of supporting artists financially is explored through a meeting between Ben Nicholson and Oliver Kilburn, whom Helen Sutherland has offered to support via a stipend so he can paint full time. Nicholson paints a different picture, one where the paid artist has to work according to his patron’s wishes, and his frustration at being stifled was clear to see. Later on, the way Helen drops the group once they’re ‘in’, as she goes in pursuit of the next unknown, is a clear warning of the dangers faced by anyone relying on her financial support.

There’s also the question of ‘good’ art, and who gets to decide this – that runs throughout the play – and the ticklish question of whether anyone could do what these men had done, or whether they were just exceptionally gifted. Lyon’s point of view was that, given the chance, all people could produce art to this standard, while the group felt that was rubbish, they just happened to be bloody good at it! I took Robert Lyon’s point – there is a lot of talent that even now isn’t being discovered or nurtured fully, but perhaps not so many people would come up with such powerful work as this group did without some sort of training, so they definitely were exceptional.

This is such a rich piece that I can’t put down everything that happened, but the warmth and enjoyment will stay with me for a long time. A superb production, and a great play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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