As three separate collections by Pitmen Painter Jack Harrison come together for an exhibition at Woodhorn Museum, we chatted to his daughter Jacqui Henderson about how he always looked on the bright side of life.
Born into a mining family, Jack spent 50 years as a miner at Ellington and Ashington collieries in Northumberland. Although he had always had an interest in art, it wasn’t until he was encouraged by Ashington Group member Harry Wilson in the 1950s to join their society of artists, largely composed of miners with no artistic training, that it became an important part of his life.
Being a member of the Ashington Group was very liberating for Jack, as it was the first time he could receive constructive criticism and talk to people about different artistic styles and approaches, which were very dear to his heart. ‘You name it, he liked to try it,’ says Jacqui. ‘After my mother died in the early 1960s, he became quite prolific with his drawing and tried different mediums and painting styles. He liked to experiment and read hundreds of books on the subject. He was very much a self-educated man and took his work very seriously.’
However, his work didn’t always conform to the group’s aims, as his paintings were often unrelated to mining and full of colour. ‘He was an exception, rather than part of the rule,’ says Jacqui. ‘A lot of the Ashington Group members painted and drew things that were to do with working at the colliery and the life of a miner. There are about half a dozen of my father’s paintings that are in that mode, but considering that he actually painted hundreds of paintings, its a very minuscule percentage.’
Instead, Jack preferred his artwork to be bright and colourful. ‘This is the way he saw the world,’ says Jacqui. ‘He wanted to portray things that were colourful as a counterbalance to having spent so many years of his life down the pit, where it was clearly dark and miserable. He made that positive decision on how he wanted to portray what he saw. He was a very positive person and thought it was important to look on the bright side of life.’
‘There’s a fabulous painting of Ellington Colliery that he did when it was in its last days of operation. In the colliery scene there are buildings in the background, but the foreground is full of foliage, flowers and weeds which are very colourful and have a great deal of detail.’
Jack’s paintings were inspired by everyday life, rural scenes and his local surroundings in Northumberland such as Berwick, Ford Castle, Alnwick and Warkworth. Jacqui says, ‘His paintings show his desire to look for things that were colourful and vibrant because he thought that was what life was about.’
The Bright Side
Until 19th April 2015