I’ve always been a great believer in the liberating power of art. Also the idea that people should not be denied access to culture on the basis of wealth, class or education. The Pitmen Painters looks at all of these issues in a play that is illuminating but also extremely funny, often a difficult trick to pull of.
The Pitmen Painters is set at a very particular time in British history, when the working classes were really beginning to realise that the world was changing in their favour. Most of them had read Marx in one form or another, and almost all were members of the Labour Party when it was still committed to social justice.
A group of miners from Ashington start taking classes in a variety of different subjects to improve their education, and as the play begins they’ve turned their attention to art. A lecturer from Newcastle comes to give them a course on art appreciation. He quickly realises that simply showing them slides of great works isn’t going to be enough, so decides to take a more hands on approach. The miners are asked to take up painting themselves, and the next week they come in with what they’ve produced which is then discussed by the group.
The play covers the years 1936 to 1945 and how these men change over time, in response both to the classes and their own attempts to create art. Much of the play is taken up with discussions of what art actually is and the impact it has on people. Mixed in with this are broader themes about the nature of being working class and the growth of socialism. Meanwhile the world changes around them with ending of the Great Depression and the start of World War Two.
When I first decided to go and see the play I was a bit worried that it would just be a rehash of Educating Rita. The rather patronising idea that all you need to do is expose people to culture and everything will be ok. The Pitman Painters takes a more nuanced view than this. For instance, one of the miners refuses a stipend from a wealthy patron to become a full-time painter; he does this because he feels that it would be a betrayal of his colleagues. The arguments surrounding this decision are fully explored as well as his realisation a few years later that he made the wrong choice.
The painters were a real group who became internationally recognised for their work, which concentrated mainly on working class life in the North-East. Their art, while lacking in technique, was incredibly vibrant and captures a side of Britain that is often ignored in the official school history books. The play ends with the election of the Labour government in 1945 and the sweeping changes to healthcare and education it would introduce. The final line though is a reminder of New Labour from 1995 when the committment to nationalise the means of production was removed from the party constitution as part of the ‘Clause 4’ reforms.
The National Theatre production I saw in Nottingham was marvellous in terms of the acting and writing, but also the use of large projection screens so the audience could see in detail the art that was being discussed. If you ever get the opportunity I’d highly recommend taking the time to visit Ashington where much of their art is still on display. If you can’t do that then the book the play is based by William Feaver is well worth a read.
Here the cast and writer of The Pitmen Painters talking about the play: