Ashington Group: The pitmen painters, National Theatre, London

Miners who struck an affecting seam

Certain exhibitions seem to demand what we might call a high-toned art-historical response to what they seem to be offering up to us on a finely wrought platter of a certain vintage. They are important because of what they tell us about a particular artist, and how he or she fitted in – or perhaps, naughty, naughty, violently rejected – certain art-historical movements. These kinds of exhibitions form part of a continuing conversation about art and how it has developed down the centuries. There are lot of such exhibitions about because there are many professional curators who need to be kept in a job.

This exhibition in the upstairs foyer of the National Theatre in London is a little different. It has a different kind of an interest, and a different kind of a pull. It complements a play that is currently showing at the Lyttelton Theatre, which was itself based on a book about the pitmen painters whose work is on display here. It is not so much an art-historical story – although we could examine these works in a fairly academic way, relating them to the work of other painters – as a human one, with a truly visceral pull.

It is about a particular group of miners who worked the seams of Ashington colliery in Northumberland in the early 1930s. Ashington, a small town of about 30,000 souls in those days, which lacked even a public library, entirely depended upon the pit for its survival. These miners turned to art as a pastime, thanks to the efforts of the Workers' Educational Association, which provided a tutor for them, a master painter from Durham University called Robert Lyon. Lyon had an ambition for these men: he wanted them to memorialise the world of which they were a part, and in so doing, value it all the more. And so there was art tuition, but, more important still, there was the vital matter of looking at everything that surrounded you, and of trying to register its importance and interest – its spiritual load – on canvas.

So, these artists were wholly untrained professionally, and at the outset they were somewhat art-shy, embarrassed, awkward. In a sense then, this is a kind of Art Brut or Outsider Art, as it has come to be known. Except that these men were not marginalised and mentally afflicted, as so many of the so-called outsider artists have been. They did not partially heal themselves by dreaming wild and extravagant dreams on canvas.

No, these pitmen painters set out to capture the nitty-gritty of the lives of their communities as they and their families knew it, whether it be hewing at the coalface, or peering into the kitchen where the pinnied wife lovingly pummelled and shaped and baked the bread, week in, week out. So this is usually robustly simple work, stylistically speaking. We do recognise that it has affinities with certain other painters whom we are inclined to think of as members of the professional painting fraternity – Stanley Spencer, Samuel Palmer, David Jones, and even Henri Matisse all come to mind from time to time. But what is important here is the brute fact of documenting a particular world, and often in ways that are extremely memorable.

Most of the paintings on exhibition here are by a painter called Oliver Kilbourn, who died in 1993. As a proof of how good Kilbourn could be when working at his best, just look at a painting called Mother and Child, which he made in 1939. Here we have a wonderful image of the relationship between the all-enveloping, wholly dependable mother figure and the tiny, needy child. The mother, exaggeratedly large and with pendulous breasts, stands, spread-legged in her living room, with its spotted curtains and set table, hand resting on a chair. The child clings to the huge swell of her stomach. There is something beautifully right and wholly affecting about this tender, intimate image. The world pivots about such moments.

To 21 March (020-7452 3400)

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