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Former miners' art to feature in new Durham gallery

Gillian Wales and Dr Robert McManners OBE with Dr Christopher Ferguson and Liz Fisher, Auckland Castle Trust Photo:

A disused building in County Durham is being transformed into a new art gallery, exploring a key part of our industrial past, mining.

This autumn, work will begin to convert the former Old Bank Chambers Building at 45 Market Place, Bishop Auckland, into a space dedicated to showcasing paintings by former miners and the wider mining community, as well as other works depicting life underground.

The Mining Art Gallery, due to open in August 2017, is the idea of Gillian Wales and Dr Robert McManners OBE, founders of the Gemini Collection of Mining Art, in partnership with regional charity, the Auckland Castle Trust.

It follows the successful Pitmen and Prelates exhibition, curated by Gillian, Robert and the charitable Trust, which was recently displayed inside the former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, Auckland Castle.

“Mining art is a vital aspect of coalfield heritage, which had not been properly valued and was rapidly disappearing from living memory.

“During five years of research for the book Shafts of Light, where we recorded and evaluated the work of more than 70 coalfield artists, many of whom had not been previously acknowledged in print, we realised that it was essential that this work be collected for future study and appreciation – and this we did.

“Now, after more than twenty years of collecting, Gillian and I have acquired over 300 pictures, as well as further pieces of three-dimensional art, which allow us to understand the language of the mining artist.

“Through imagery they tell us what it felt like to work in the coalmines, not simply what it looked like. In this mining artists are unique and we find no equivalent corpus of experiential art from any of the other heavy industries that flourished in the North East in the twentieth century.

“Coal shaped not only the demography but also the value-systems held in the North East. It has defined the region's character and we owe it to those in our coal industry, that great driver of the Industrial Revolution, to permanently celebrate their art and understand why, even for their leisure, the miner felt it necessary to paint that same dark, clamorous, claustrophobic arcane world, denied to our gaze, where he had just spent a perilous shift of frightening physical toil.

“We are delighted now to be realising this ambition in our new Mining Art Gallery.”

– Dr Robert McManners OBE, co-founder of the Gemini Collection

As well as providing a permanent home for the renowned Gemini Collection, which includes works by prominent local mining artists Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish, amongst many others, the new Mining Art Gallery will also offer a wide range of opportunities to explore the history of mining and the impact it had, not just on those who worked there, but on the County Durham community as a whole.

“The mining artwork in Bob and Gillian’s Gemini Collection is a powerful reflection of the North East’s industrial identity.

“We will be working closely with local businesses, schools and social groups to capture the sense of pride these pieces instil and to ensure the County Durham community is captured not only in the paintings but in the very fabric of the gallery itself.

“While there is a lot of building work still to be done, we are confident that, with support from the construction community, we can create a space for the future, befitting of the region’s past.”

– Liz Fisher, Operations Director for Auckland Castle Trust