Nicholas Evans

Painter specialising in coal-mines and miners
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The Independent Online

Nicholas Evans, engine-driver and painter: born Aberdare, Glamorgan 10 January 1907; married 1928 Annie Lambert (died 1997; two sons, one daughter); died Abernant, Rhondda Cynon Taff 5 February 2004.

The Welsh painter Nicholas Evans was unusual in that he did not begin painting until he was in his late sixties and did not exhibit his work until 1978, when he was 71. In that year he held a one-man exhibition at the Arts Council's Oriel Gallery in Cardiff, and was immediately acclaimed as an original painter who depicted his subject matter - the mines and miners of South Wales - in a new and disturbing way.

Whereas painters like Josef Herman and Will Roberts emphasised the heroic robustness of colliers without ever having worked at the coal-face, Evans showed them as victims, their spectral faces ravaged by physical toil and the harsh conditions of work underground which he had experienced as a young man. There is perhaps something troglodytic about his miners, even when they take part in hunger marches or, in scenes that call to mind Stanley Spencer's Cookham, when they ascend in swarms to heaven at the Last Trump, but the painter's sympathy for their lot gives them an iconic power.

Evans's show at the Oriel Gallery, which was followed by another at Browse & Darby in London, took the art world by storm. Lawrence Gowing, Professor at the Slade School, compared his work with that of Diego Rivera, the revolutionary Mexican muralist. Every trade union in the country, he wrote in the catalogue, should buy one of Evans's paintings because they tackled the large themes of life and death and portrayed working men with stark realism. Evans's pictures are now in many public galleries, including the Tate Modern and the Glynn Vivian in Swansea, and he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy's summer show.

His first admirers were surprised to learn that, although he confined himself to painting miners, for the most part, Evans had worked underground for only three years. He had left the pits, at his mother's insistence, after his father's death in an accident at the Fforchaman Colliery near Aberdare in 1923, when he was 16. He became a railwayman and, in due course, found a relatively safe surface job as a GWR engine driver attached to the coal industry in the Cynon Valley.

His ability to draw was discovered by a teacher at his primary school, who gave him a new pencil and encouraged him to sketch, which he did for a while but he stopped because he could not afford to buy paper. He took up drawing again in his sixties as an antidote to a sense of purposelessness he felt after giving up his job. By then the coal industry of South Wales was in terminal decline, but it was as if a lifetime's experience of manual work and the communal memory of the pits were flowing down his arm and seeking expression. He was particularly good at drawing the tools of the colliers' trade, their helmets and mandrels and tommy-boxes, the pit-ponies and the timbers which held up the roof.

What began as a hobby became an obsession and his small terraced house in Abernant started to fill up with paintings stacked high in every room. Soon there were so many piled around the walls that once they collapsed on top of him, pinning him down for several hours until he was found by his daughter, Rhoda. It was in collaboration with her that Evans produced a book about his art, Symphonies in Black (1987).

Untrained and painting with his hands and rags on square pieces of hardboard that he bought at a local DIY store and primed with emulsion, Evans first taught himself perspective and then proceeded to fracture it in a bid to convey the physical and spiritual pain suffered by his former workmates. Their eyes are always half-shut, their noses equine, their hands like shovels, and his palette seems to have had only black, grey, white and a phantasmagorical blue.

In The Last Bond the colliers coming up the mineshaft are hardly individuals, because Evans tended to give the same features to all his faces, and they are pressed against the bars of the cage because they share a common destiny in the claustrophobic environment of the mine. "The men's faces are big," he told the art historian Peter Lord, "because I want to overpower you. I'm shouting at you. Because I'm angry."

If, since they are rooted in a specific social and historical context, there is a political message implied in many of his paintings, there is also a deeply religious dimension. Shortly after his father's death, Evans experienced a spiritual conversion and joined the Pentecostal Church, to which he remained faithful for the rest of his life. A lay preacher, he tended to explain his paintings in biblical imagery: the pit of hell, the outer darkness, the fiery coals, the light of the world, and so on.

Many depict religious scenes in an industrial setting. Entombed - Jesus in the Midst (1974), now in the collection of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, shows Christ preaching to miners at their place of work. His figures often strike biblical poses, as in Carrying out the Dead (1979) and Black Avalanche (1978), in which he responded to the Aberfan Disaster of 1966, where the central figure of a policeman carrying a child's body is surrounded by grieving parents as in a Crucifixion scene.

Nick Evans went on painting until well into his nineties and turned up, cheerful and sociable as ever in his black beret, for the private view of "In His Oils", his exhibition at the Rhondda Heritage Park (on the site of a former mine) in March 2001. The esteem in which he was generally held was reflected in the fact that none of his paintings was priced at under £2,000.

Meic Stephens