Pit pics are big hit

Peter Watson
Peter Watson
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FOR colliery bosses, Peter Watson arriving with his pencils and pad was the last thing they wanted to see.

He was the young artist, commissioned by the National Coal Board in 1972, to paint South Yorkshire’s doomed mines. His instructions were to preserve for posterity the sights, shafts and smoked-choked skies of an industry on the brink of extinction.

“I’d turn up and it was like the harbinger of doom arriving,” he recalls. “They felt if I’d been sent to paint a place, it wouldn’t be long before the big bosses came knocking with bad news.

“It was difficult but I felt it was important anyway.”

Forty years on, he has perhaps been proven right.

For the 14 remarkable pictures he produced over six years have just gone on exhibition in South Yorkshire for the first time. And together, they capture an age and industry which though now largely gone, should surely not be forgotten.

The 6 x 4ft images - showing at The Cooper Gallery in Barnsley - include Orgreave long before it was best known for its battle, Elsecar drenched in sunlight and the charming bleakness of Kiveton Park Colliery.

“I had a couple of miners tell me recently it was wonderful to see someone had done this,” says Peter. “That was quite emotional.”

So why has it taken 40 years for the exhibition to happen?

“When I finished each painting I presented it to the National Coal Board and then didn’t really think about it again,” explains the 67-year-old professional artist of Scarborough.

“But a year or so ago I was exhibiting some other work in Bridlington when someone came up and asked me ‘Are you the same Peter Watson whose paintings are at the National Coal Museum?’

“I said ‘I suppose I must be’.”

He went to the centre in Wakefield and, sure enough, preserved in perfect conditions were those 14 works.

“I was quite taken aback when I saw them again,” says the grandfather-of-two. “It was so long since I’d done them it felt like I was looking at someone else’s work. I couldn’t remember them being so big, actually.”

Form there, he and the museum agreed the paintings should be shown in their spiritual home of South Yorkshire. That led to The Cooper Gallery getting involved and the images now going on show through April and May.

After that, Peter hopes they can be displayed in other parts of the region too.

“It would be nice if we could show them so everyone who wants to see them can,” he says. “It was a sad project because it was marking the end of an era but I think these paintings are unique.”

Exhibition runs at The Cooper Gallery in Church Street Barnsley until May 18.