England: The Artist Inspired by South Yorkeshire's Coal Mines, Cooling Towers and Steelworks
By Paul Whitehouse
January 3, 2021 - Back in the 1970s, South Yorkshire, England was a powerhouse of heavy industry and while it helped keep the country moving, the coal mines, coking plants and steelworks were hardly its most attractive features.
But one man saw a beauty through the grime and set about chronicling what was before him in the only way he knew how, with paint and brushes.
Artist Peter Watson became familiar with the county after meeting his wife and recognised the potential not of its impressive moorlands or rolling fields, but of the industrial landscape most would have discarded as a blight on the area.
His eye for that detail won him a small exhibition in Rotherham and among his new and growing band of admirers was a National Coal Board executive.
That contact ended up with him being commissioned to paint many of the county’s collieries as, although it was unknown at the time, the clock was ticking towards their closure as the year long miners’ strike, followed by wholesale closures, loomed in the following decades.
In the confusion of the colliery closure programme, Peter’s work appeared to vanish and he assumed they must have been taken as individual mementos or maybe even thrown away as the NCB changed to British Coal or the collieries closed.
Years later, he was contacted by the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield to be asked if he was the Peter Watson who had painted the collieries.
It turned out his work had been kept together and is now seen as being of such significance it forms part of a national collection.
So much so that when he learned one painting needed a repair he offered to retouch the work but was politely refused, with the explanation such tasks were entrusted only to official conservators.
Beyond mining he also recorded now-gone landmarks such as Tinsley’s ‘twin towers’ alongside the M1 and others which could have been overlooked as mundane.
Today Peter, who lives near the coast in North Yorkshire, is still painting but his subject matter is more likely to be the natural environment of the Yorkshire Wolds.
However, his brushes still veer towards the man-made and features like crumbling sea defences appear alongside some of the finest nature has to offer.
Peter with some of his work exhibited in Rotherham
Iconic: Tinsley's 'twin towers' before demolition
Grim: a colliery as captured by Peter Watson
History: Colliery headgear like this have now gone from the landscape