By Tony Henderson
March 6, 2019 - As centuries of deep coal mining came to a close in the North East of England, artist Aidan Doyle found himself in a race to record its passing.
Aidan spent three years photographing the final chapter in the history of collieries such as Seaham Vane Tempest, Easington, Wearmouth, Westoe, Ellington and Blenkinsopp near Haltwhistle.
Aidan Doyle's painting of a miner at Easington Colliery (left); Miners riding up the drift at Blenkinsopp Colliery by Aidan Doyle (bottom); Underground at Westoe Colliery in South Shields by Aidan Doyle (centre); Cage at Westoe Colliery by Aidan Doyle (right)
Aidan took 5,000 pictures, which later provided the basis for 100 paintings, sketches and prints.
Now a selection of his photographs has gone on permanent show at the recently-restored listed St Hilda’s Colliery headstock building in South Shields.
Miners riding up the drift at Blenkinsopp Colliery by Aidan Doyle
Aidan, who lives in Felling in Gateshead, says: “Around 1990, I decided as a painter to take a look at what defined the North East as a place.
“Then pits started closing right, left and centre. With the massive closure programme, I knew that the mines were going to disappear completely.”
Aidan focused on documenting the collieries while he could. At places like Westoe in South Shields and Wearmouth, in Sunderland , production had already stopped.
A particularly poignant moment for Aidan was being among the last party of men to leave the underground workings at Westoe.
Aidan Doyle's painting of a miner at Easington Colliery
By that time access to Westoe was via the shaft at the former St Hilda’s colliery where, aptly, Aidan’s images are now on display.
Around the time of the 25th anniversary of the closure of Westoe, Aidan began digitising his pictures, and has processed 300 so far.
“I set to work on the digitisation and through that I went back to make paintings of some of the images, mostly underground scenes,” he says.
Some of the paintings have been on show at Newcastle Arts Centre in Westgate Road, where Aidan has a studio.
His hope is that the paintings – and there are more to come – can tour mining areas in the UK and Europe.
“It is the story of people hard at work, of men working in confined spaces, working in that darkness – things that were taken for granted and now no longer exist,” Andy said.
“I wanted to document what I could in a short space of time as the mines demolition program proceeded in what was described as indecent haste. They couldn’t get rid of everything quickly enough.
“I was warmly accommodated by the miners. They appreciated it was the last opportunity for their story to be told, and they went out of their way to help me.”
Cage at Westoe Colliery by Aidan Doyle
What left a lasting impression on Aidan is the complex mining infrastructure which now lies hidden beneath the surface.
“You can’t begin to imagine all these amazing structures which will not be seen again, and the scale of the endeavour that was mining in the North East over the centuries,” he says.
He was instrumental in saving the pit cage at Easington, which was later placed on the site of the colliery as a sculptural memorial.
Aidan had graduated from art school with a degree in painting, and worked for 10 years at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle as a stage hand, where he sketched many of the actors.
Underground at Westoe Colliery in South Shields by Aidan Doyle
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He spent two years painting in Italy, and later studied at Durham University for a mining-related PhD, inspired by his photographic work in the pits.
Another 12 years followed as a research associate at Newcastle University, co-operating with the late Prof Paul Younger, who worked on the physical legacy of mining while Aidan studied the heritage side.
He was also artist in residence during the last year of the life of the Ingham Infirmary in South Shields, producing more than 100 works on canvas and paper and giving 50 on permanent loan to the health body, with the proviso that they should be permanently displayed.
“The works, like the mining studies, while commonplace activities at the time appear now to provide yet another historical document of times past. It was important that the collection looked at many aspects of hospital life - caring, cleaning, cooking, nursing, operating, people waiting to be attended to, and so on. The paintings depict moments of great kindness and human empathy.”
Another artist in residence post was during the construction of The Word library in the Market Place in South Shields.
But it was the mining mission which has been one of Aidan’s major undertakings.
He says: “I felt duty bound to do something as the mines closed, and it was an immense privilege to have the miners show me their world of work.
“What came out of it was, to the best of my ability, a homage to the mining industry and the people who were part of it, and the goodwill they showed me.”
* St Hilda’s Pit Head is open weekly on a Tuesday, from 12-2pm, when former pitmen from the Harton & Westoe Miners Banner Group will lead tours, taking in the exhibition as well as donated mining memorabilia.
There will also be a talk on colliery banners by Ken Smith on Monday, March 11 at 2pm, when the exhibition will be on show.
Aidan be contacted via www.greatnorthernbanners.com/great-northern-artists.