The Bowes Museum > Exhibitions > 2014 > Shafts of Light: Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield

Shafts of Light: Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield

17 May – 21 September 2014

A salute to a once essential and powerful workforce this exhibition - which featured around 70  paintings, including works by renowned mining artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness – vividly illustrated the working environment of coalminers through their own interpretation of life in and around the North East of England, allowing the viewer to experience through the artists’ eyes the severe working conditions and social climate of the time.   

Over half the paintings that went on show are part of the vast Gemini Collection of Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, who curated the exhibition. Their award winning book, Shafts of Light, after which the exhibition is named, was reprinted to coincide with the opening of the show. The book documented the work of over 70 artists – both amateur and professional – all of whom gained inspiration from the might of the colliery. 

While coalmining was considered an honourable profession on the continent, the miner being seen as a noble toiler against Mother Earth and depicted as such in 19th Century European art, it was a different story in England. Here the terrible working conditions of the collier were hidden from public gaze. While formal commissioned images of mines do exist from the 18th Century, experiential mining art didn’t appear here until the 1920s with the likes of Gilbert Daykin, George Bissill and Vincent Evans. 

In subsequent years the movement prospered and many of the region’s most celebrated contemporary artists, like Cornish and McGuinness, derive from their collier roots. Many of these artists were full time pitmen who still found the time and energy to permanently record their experiences in paint. 

However, many professional artists like Graham Sutherland and Josef Herman who are also represented in the exhibition, produced their own body of work in an artistic celebration not found in other industries.

Also on display were miners’ banners courtesy of Durham Miners’ Association, portraying the rich history of the pit communities. Depicted on the Chopwell banner are Lenin and Marx, while others represented Durham Miners’ support groups from the cataclysmic strike of 1984 (specifically women’s groups) and the famous Durham Miners’ Gala Day parade.


Related Events

Shafts of Light Lecture
17 May, 2.30, Free with Admission

Why did coalminers paint the mines? Mining artists and professional artists alike have been mesmerised by the visual impact of coalmining and have produced a body of work the like of which is found in no other industry. This talk by curators, Dr Robert McManners and Gillian Wales explores the potential reasons for this phenomenon, in relation to the artists featured in the exhibition. 

Miners’ Experience  
28, 29, 30 May, 10.30 - 12.00 or 1.00 - 2.30, £4.00 per child

Explore the new Shafts of Light exhibition with a children’s trail before handling replica mining artefacts and creating something to take home.
Wednesday 28th: Miner Lamp
Thursday 29th: Miner Helmet
Friday 30th: Pit Ponies
Booking required on 01833 690606. Children must be accompanied by an adult, for whom there is no charge for these events.

Gallery Talks
17 June, 15 July, 19 August, 16 September, 2.30
Join the Museum’s Keeper of Paintings, Emma House, for an introduction to this exhibition.

Tom McGuinness
3 July, 2.30, Free with Admission 

Born in 1926 in County Durham, Tom McGuinness, a largely self taught artist, worked in mining for 39 years. He could not have envisaged that in his later days he would be recording the demise and social aftermath of a once great and seemingly indestructible industry. Join curators, Dr Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, to learn more about this fascinating and prolific artist.

Making Miner Banners 
5 August, 10.30 - 3.00, Free with Admission
Explore the Shafts of Light exhibition and try making a banner like those of the miners in the paintings. Children must be accompanied by an adult, for whom normal admission applies.  

The Way to the Better: Norman Cornish and the Spennymoor Settlement
4 September, 2.30, Free with Admission

Join curators Dr Robert McManners & Gillian Wales and explore the influence and legacy of the Spennymoor Settlement on mining art.

The Bowes Museum grounds are open!

Due to the government announcement on Thursday 17 December, that County Durham is to remain in COVID tier 3 restrictions, The Bowes Museum unfortunately will remain closed to all visitors. However, the grounds remain open to visitors from 10.00 - 4.00 daily, and we are currently hosting a woodland fairy trail, two spring trails and outdoor guided tours are available from 29 March 2021.

As we have already been shut for a number of weeks and there is much uncertainty around possible further restrictions, we have decided to use this period to undertake some work in Café Bowes, alongside performing some much-needed structural repairs to the building, notably to the windows. January and February are usually quieter times for the Museum, often due to severe weather, so we believe that this is the best time to carry out such works with the least amount of disruption to our visitors.

We have therefore decided to remain closed for a period of four weeks following any near-future tier 2 announcement from the government, as this will allow us time to deep clean the Museum prior to reopening our doors once again. We will, of course, keep you updated as the guidelines change.

Your ongoing support during these unprecedented times is hugely appreciated and we very much look forward to welcoming you back into the building as early as possible in 2021.

We hope to be able to offer a few COVID-safe outdoor events over the coming months, about which we shall make further announcements as soon as possible.