New art exhibition turns the clock back on South Yorkshire’s industrial past

It took centuries to mould South Yorkshire’s industrial landscape to its 1970s manifestation dominated by coal and steel production – and less than a generation to leave virtually all those man-man features wiped out again.

Monday, 14th October 2019, 2:09 pm
Updated Tuesday, 15th October 2019, 1:06 pm
Grim: Artist Peter Watson caught South Yorkshire's heavy industry in action

It took centuries to mould South Yorkshire’s industrial landscape to its 1970s manifestation dominated by coal and steel production – and less than a generation to leave virtually all those man-man features wiped out again.

One man produced a unique record of the country’s industrial heritage as it teetered on the brink of extinction, however, and Rotherham Council is staging a new exhibition of his artwork.

Peter Watson was an artist teaching in Richmond when marriage brought him on visits to South Yorkshire and he was immediately struck by the magnificence of the area’s industry and set about painting.

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Vision: Artist Peter Watson recognised the potential in South Yorkshire's industrial landscape

While his current exhibition is housed in the town centre library, in the council’s Riverside House headquarters, his first was Rotherham’s old library.

By chance, one visitor was a high ranking National Coal Board official and art enthusiast who recognised Peter’s ability and the opportunity to record the demise of the county’s deep coal mines.

As a result, he was commissioned to paint them as they were closing and the collection of 14 images ended up at the National Mining Museum in Wakefield, now forming part of the national archive of art.

Peter has now recreated that collection – and many others from the same era – as canvas prints which, ironically, may be more ‘perfect’ than the originals as the printing process provides the opportunity to iron out small imperfections.

Disappeared: Tinsley cooling towers' position alongside the M1 assured them iconic status

It has been a detailed process, because aside from the colliery collection, many of his originals were sold and had to be traced so they could be professionally photographed for reproduction.

Beyond the colliery images, which include miners walking away from Orgreave and Elsecar colliery slipping into dereliction in Barnsley, others include Tinsley’s cooling towers, the Yorkshire Traction depot in Wombwell and others which capture the spirit of the era.

The colliery collection re-emerged several years ago when the mining museum unexpectedly contacted him to ask if he was the artist. He’d assumed the collection would have been broken up and lost during the demise of the coal industry.

As he rebuilt the collection of industrial images, he came up with the idea of an exhibition.

Kiveton colliery, as recorded by Peter Watson

“I had the idea I should have them on display in Rotherham,” he said.

That led to a discussion with the library service and “they were so enthusiastic” he said.

“They have said it is great to have the space used as a gallery and it is a fabulous space,” he said.

There are 27 images in the collection, which will be on display at least into the New Year. More of his work is also on display in the cafe housed in the same building.