Fig. 1: From Pits to Paris: Exhibition of the work of George Bissill, Derbyshire Forgotten Pitman Painter at the Erewash Museum, Ilkeston. Photo Credit – MuBuMiner

George Bissill: Derbyshire’s Forgotten Pitman Painter.

Exhibition: From Pits to Paris

A new exhibition of the artwork of George Bissill (1896 – 1973), Derbyshire’s forgotten pitman painter, is on display in the Lally Gallery at the Erewash Museum, Ilkeston, Derbyshire from 2nd September to 19th November 2021. A prodigy of the Avant Garde Movement, his time working in the pits influenced much of his early work. Townsend (2005) acknowledged Bissill as being one of Britain’s most important mining artists.

 

Fig. 2: Ebenezer Street, Langley Mill, Derbyshire, where the Bissill family lived.  Photo Credit: MuBuMiner
Bissill’s early life was in Langley Mill, Derbyshire; the family lived at 55 Ebenezer Street. His father was a coalminer and he followed him into the pit, starting work as a pit-lad in 1909 at the age of 13. Most of the local pits around Langley Mill at the time were owned by the Butterley Company and included New Langley, Loscoe, Bailey Brook and Ormonde Collieries. Deep coalmining finished in this part of Derbyshire in September 1970 when Ormonde Colliery closed.

 

Fig. 3: Miners shifting boulders by George Bissill.

He started painting at an early age and his time spent underground provided the landscape for some his best artistic work. His brief time working in the pit was a lifelong source of inspiration. His mining work was characterised by a series of huge figures, crouching and kneeling as they worked underground, giving a sense of claustrophobia. Some of his early work was displayed at Ilkeston Arts Club and it predated the work of the famous Ashington Group of Pitmen Painters.

 

Fig. 4: Rev FW Cobb images and minutes from Ilkeston Arts Club as part of the exhibition, From the Pits to Paris: The Works of George Bissill.  Photo Credit: MuBu Miner

In 1915, he joined the Army being stationed on the Western Front as a Sapper. This position made use of his mining skills in the trenches. He was invalided out of the Army in 1918 after being buried and badly gassed.  He returned to the pits but left a year later on medical grounds.

Fig. 5. (Left) George Bissill publicity photo 1925 at the Redfern Gallery and (Right) Miners at work by George Bissill.

In 1922 after a short spell at art school, which he was never comfortable with, he moved to London and became a pavement artist, scraping a living. After a short spell in commercial graphics, a breakthrough came when Miss Berry from the Arts League Service spotted his talent and a 1925 exhibition of some of his coalmining paintings at the Redfern Gallery brought him public acclaim.

It was here he met Arnold Haskell, a ballet writer and critic, who took him to Paris. The Paris experience helped expand his style and subject matter. In 1926, Bissill experimented with woodcuts, a style of artwork with which he found great satisfaction. His first series of woodcuts were based on coalmining subjects, some of which were brought by South Kensington Museum.

 

Fig. 6: Examples of George Bissill’s posters for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).

His fame as an artist was relatively short lived, and interest in his work began to fall out of the limelight as the 1930’s progressed.  Following the railway grouping in 1923, Bissill produced some railway posters for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). He moved from London to Hampshire in the early 1930’s eventually becoming a landscape painter, art dealer and restorer of some standing. It was there he met Gladys Swann, who he married in 1935, remaining there until his death at the age of 77 in 1973.

 

Fig. 7. Civilisation Stories: The Art of Mining, BBC TV (2018) featured the pit paintings of George Bissill & input by his biographer, Kate Pattinson, (left).

The artwork of George Bissill was brought out of obscurity by the BBC documentary, ‘Civilisation Stories: The Art of Mining’, produced by Whitehouse Media and broadcast on BBC 1 East Midlands and BBC4 in 2018. His work featured at the start of the documentary, which was introduced by Geeta Pendse. A short video clip can be seen at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0654rkg

 

Fig. 8: George Bissill: Life and Art by Kate Pattinson (2019).

His life and artwork has also been brought out of obscurity by the work of Kate Pattinson, whose biography, ‘George Bissill: Life and Art’ was published in 2019. When he died in 1973, he left much of his artwork to his old friend, Arthur Smith. They had first met years earlier at Ilkeston Arts Club. Kate is the Granddaughter of Arthur Smith and has worked tirelessly to promote the work of George Bissill and bring it to prominence. Her biography can be brought at the shop at the Erewash Museum, priced £10.

 

Fig. 9: The Erewash Museum, Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Photo Credit – MuBuMiner

Examples of George Bissill’s work appears at the Tate, the National Coalmining Museum for England and the Mining Art Gallery at Bishop Auckland. The current exhibition is on at the Erewash Museum, Ilkeston, until 19th  November 2021.

https://www.erewash.gov.uk/latest-news-section/latest-news/1348-from-the-pits-to-paris.html

Fig. 10: Flyer for the Pits to Paris exhibition on at the Erewash Museum, Ilkeston, Derbyshire during the autumn of 2021.

Posted by MuBu Miner

14th September 2021

 

References

 

Civilisation Stories: The Art of Mining, BBC, Whitehead Media, (2018).

 

From the Pit to the Palette: George Bissill https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0654rkg

 

https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/things-to-do/whats-on/george-bissill-derbyshire-s-forgotten-pitman-painter-6507264

 

https://www.georgebissill.co.uk/portraiture

 

McManners, R. and Wale, G.  Shafts of Light: Mining Art in the Great Northern Coalfield, (2016).

 

Pattinson, K.  George Bissill: Life and Art, (2019).

 

Townsend, I, D.  Coal Faces, Mining Lives: Portraits of an Industry and its people, (2005).

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