Scarborough artist Alan Stuttle was sorting out the attic room of his North Marine Gallery when he stumbled across a set of paintings he had undertaken as a project 23 years ago.
In those days (1992) his gallery was in Micklegate, York, and Stuttle, a landscape artist and graduate of the Royal College of Art, had been given a challenge by a friend to paint 10 Yorkshire pits.
“This friend worked in insurance through the mining unions,” Alan said, “and he could foresee a time when these pits would be closed down then swept away. He once told me ‘they will never come again and they’re such an important part of English and Yorkshire history’.”
Starting off with Ledston ‘Luck’, a colliery that fascinated him, Stuttle got to work but by the time he had finished the 10 pit portraits it was only to find that Mr Painter, the man who laid down the challenge, had passed away.
Not knowing what to do with the set, he stored it in a back room and forgot about it. When he moved from York to Scarborough years later, the pictures slipped out of sight and out of mind until he stumbled on them during a spring clean earlier this year.
“It was around the time that we were being told in the media that the last two pits in Yorkshire – Hatfield and Kellingley – were to close by the end of 2015.”
To Stuttle that was a wake-up call. First of all, he waded through the numerous works in his attic to identify and catalogue the pit paintings he had archived some 23 years ago.
Then he contacted the National Coal Mining Museum at Overton to see whether they were interested in displaying his work. As far as he knew the work was unique in that no other artist had put together such a collection. A meeting was arranged with Curatorial Director Rosemary Preece and he received the thumbs-up for a future display.
Next he resolved to visit the two condemned pits – Hatfield and Kellingley – and create portraits of them without delay. The idea was to produce a limited edition print of fifty of each pit.
The museum agreed to the proposal and made plans for some of them to appear on show this December and January.
“Hopefully, miners and their families who have a lifelong link with the pit will like the idea of a picture of it on their wall,” Stuttle said.
“I am well aware that such a picture is not everybody’s cup of tea.
“The other day I overheard someone looking at a pit picture in my gallery window. ‘Who would want a picture of a dirty old pit on their wall?’ they said. “But there are people who do. When it’s been the workplace for two or three generations of a family, it has become a kind of icon. Each has its own distinct character.”
Currently there is a wave of nostalgia for old football grounds with websites dedicated to them, but no-one would make a case for their aesthetic qualities; it’s all to do with memory.
The same might be said for pitheads.
Stuttle is no stranger to mining communities. In the mid-fifties, before attending the Royal College of Art, he was a student at Burslem School of Art near Stoke-on-Trent.
“The school was just across the road from a reading room used by the old miners. As a 15-year-old I would sketch the miners reading their newspapers. Many were war veterans with faces full of life and adventure. That was where my love of miners and their communities was born.”
After a period working and exhibiting in California, Stuttle returned to Britain and moved his base from Cheshire to York, where he established his first gallery.
“Going to Yorkshire gave me the opportunity to paint many collieries. I would have liked to have painted more of the miners themselves too. What has happened to the communities as a result of closures is upsetting and I try to reflect that sadness in my pictures of the pits.
“A camera can take a lot of interesting pictures, but it can’t show spirit, mood and feeling in the same way as an artist. That’s why I prefer to paint on the spot to capture the scene in real time.”
A fascinating observation from Stuttle concerns how his pictures alter over the years, something that could not be said of a photograph. Due to the effect of constant light – real and artificial – the colours used by the artist alter subtly and this has an effect on how the picture appears to the observer.
The best way to appreciate what the artist is saying about his work is to see some of his paintings which are on display at the National Coal Mining Museum until the end of this month.
Each print (signed by the artist) of Hatfield and Kellingley will run to 50 copies and will be priced at £50. Monies produced by sale of the limited editions will be split between the Mining Museum and the artist’s own charity.
Fourteen years ago Alan’s daughter, Caroline, was murdered while backpacking in Australia. He set up a charity in her memory, the proceedings of which help promising young artists to develop their talent, either through trips abroad or the purchase of equipment. This is the charity’s 13th year; so far almost 50 youngsters have received awards.