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British mining culture, class structure called to play in ‘Pitmen Painters’

Ben (Jordan Brown from left) Jimmy (Steven Pringle) Oliver (Dan Waller) Harry (James Houton) George (William Dick) are  'The

Ben (Jordan Brown, from left), Jimmy (Steven Pringle), Oliver (Dan Waller), Harry (James Houton) and George (William Dick) are "The Pitman Painters" in TimeLine''s production of Lee Hall's play. | Photo by Lara Goetsch.

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♦ Previews begin Sept. 6; opens Sept. 10 and runs through Dec. 4

♦ TimeLine Theatre, 650 W. Wellington

♦ Tickets, $32-42

♦ (773) 281-8463, ext. 6;

Updated: November 16, 2011 1:42AM

From the moment he first heard about “The Pitmen Painters” — Lee Hall’s play about a group of miners in northern England who find their expressive spirit with paint and homemade canvases — director BJ Jones felt a special affinity for the drama.

“In 1969, after my dad had died, my brother and I had to make our own dough,” recalled Jones, whose production of the play, which already has had successful runs in London, New York, Korea and beyond, will receive its Chicago premiere this weekend at TimeLine Theatre. “So I got a job at Mobil Chemicals, where they made varnish, in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. And guess what? I had to join the United Mine Workers of America.”

The story, of course, does not end there.

“In August of that summer, the employees of the company went out on strike for the usual reasons of wages and conditions,” said Jones, who is moonlighting at TimeLine while also entering his 13th season as artistic director of Skokie-based Northlight Theatre.

“My buddy and I took this as an opportunity to drive to upstate New York, where we got stuck in a rather large traffic jam [otherwise known as the Woodstock Festival]. When I got back home, the guy who had hired me for the factory job offered me a full-time gig as a shift manager. I told him I wanted to be an actor and was going back to school, and he gave me one of those classic blue-collar sidelong glances that said ‘Actor, oh sure,’ which was something I got all my life. Ironically enough, the Mobil factory is now closed, and I’m running a mid-sized theater company and directing a play about miners who become artists.”

If the name of the play’s author sounds familiar, well it should. Lee Hall penned the screenplay for the hit film “Billy Elliot,” as well as the book for the musical of the same name. And of course that had a somewhat similarly themed story in which a young boy — the son of a miner — found his passion, and his escape, in ballet.

For “The Pitmen Painters,” Hall turned to a true story fully chronicled in William Feaver’s 1988 book, Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group, 1934-1984.

It all began with an initiative by the Workers’ Educational Association in Ashington, a “pit village” north of Newcastle. In the late 1920s, the WEA began offering adult education classes on various subjects to those who had missed out on school because they’d spent most of their young lives working in the mines. In the fall of 1934, a group of such miners met in the town’s YMCA hall for a new offering — a course in art appreciation taught by Robert Lyon of Durham University.

Lyon’s attempt to light a spark in his students initially fell flat when he simply showed them black-and-white slides of heavily mythological and religious Renaissance paintings. So he adopted a new approach and had the miners begin to actually make art of their own. The class took off, and the men coalesced into the Ashington Group, which met regularly to critique each other’s work. Their paintings, which captured aspects of their jobs and their village life, also began to attract serious attention, with Lyon introducing them to heiress and art patron Helen Sutherland who proceeded to underwrite their first trip to London to visit the National Gallery and the Tate.

“Although these miners often went out to work by the age of 10 or 11, they were far from dumb,” said Jones. “They knew engineering and mathematics and even some physics and chemistry. And they wanted to learn more about the world.

“The miners of the 1930s and ‘40s had a real sense of personal advancement and aspiration,” said Hall. who comes from a similar part of England and has working class roots. “And in part what interested me most about them was that they did the opposite of what I did, which was to become a writer and get out of that environment. They remained as pitmen, continuing to work a full shift in the mines and then do their art. Why didn’t they break out? I think it was because they were part of a group, and no one wanted to break ranks and betray that group.”

When Jones saw the play in New York he fell in love with its characters and thought back to the Northlight show, ‘Gee’s Bend,’ about poor Alabama women whose quilts became part of museum collections.

“Do you call all this work folk art?,” Jones mused. “And if so, what’s wrong with folk art? We celebrate ‘outsider art’ now, and you could even argue that someone like Tony Fitzpatrick [the gifted Chicago collagist/poet/actor] is something of a folk artist.”

While a certain art world snobbishness and exclusivity has in many ways radically changed in recent decades, what remains fairly constant is Britain’s very particular form of class distinction.

“In this country the whole class thing is subtler,” said Jones, “but it might be more insidious.

“The Pitmen painters maintained their lives as miners but became dedicated amateur painters. And their roots, and the world they knew, both empowered them and held them back. Their paintings captured who they were, and what their community was like. On that famous trip to London they saw their first Van Goghs, and it really changed them. It was their first flowering. They were realists. Abstract art mystified them.”

As part of his cast’s preparation, Jones had the actors watch “The Stars Look Down,” Carol Reed’s 1940 British film about the collapse of a mine in northern England. It not only gave them a better sense of place, but also helped with their regional “Geordi” accents.

As for directing “The Pitmen Painters” at TimeLine rather than his Northlight home, Jones said: “This play fits exactly into TimeLine’s mission of illuminating aspects of history and is ideal for its audience. It’s also so resonant with our own times and all the anti-union venom. I myself happen to be a member of four unions now.”

NOTE: More than 80 paintings compiled over many years by the real members of the Ashington Group are part of the collection at the Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives in England. To see some of these works visit

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