Enlightenment Emerges From Darkness, an essay by Richard Rose at Spillwords.com
lamp in mine

Enlightenment Emerges From Darkness

Enlightenment Emerges From Darkness:

Reflections on “Drawing in the Dark”

an exhibition of the coal mine drawings of Henry Moore. St Alban’s Museum and Gallery, UK

written by: Richard Rose


Enlightenment Emerges From Darkness, an essay by Richard Rose at Spillwords.com
Henry Moore (At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub)

In the 1970s, embarking on a career as a teacher, my first appointment was to a school in a small mining town called Swadlincote in South Derbyshire. Prior to this time, my experiences of coal mining communities were almost non-existent. Other than a few visits to South Wales to play rugby or walks past long abandoned mines and spoil heaps in the Forst of Dean near where I grew up in Gloucester, my knowledge of coal mining was limited to what I had learned in history lessons. Swadlincote provided me with a significant awakening, though perhaps a limited understanding of what life was like for those men who spent their lives deep underground working the coal faces.
My abiding memories of those days are of a proud and hardy community of people. Men whose outlook on life was shaped by a common bond forged through hard and dangerous labour in the harshest of working environments. Women, fiercely supportive of their men, aware of the daily dangers that were never too far away from their lives, but equally proud of the traditions of hard labour that characterised many generations of coal miners in the South Derbyshire coalfields.
As a teacher, and furthermore a southerner, I was immediately and quite rightly seen as an outsider; someone who could empathise with the lives of the miners, but never truly understand what it was to be a part of this community. I am sure that this assessment was fully justified. My relationship to those men whose children I taught, or with whom I engaged socially on the local rugby or cricket grounds, was never less than mutually respectful. My wife and I lived in the area for only a brief time, but had we remained for many years I suspect we would still have struggled to achieve a full appreciation of what it meant to be truly part of a mining community.
Henry Moore quite rightly regarded as one of the finest sculptors of the twentieth century, came from a coal mining community. His father spent his entire working life labouring at the coalface deep underground in Castleford, West Yorkshire. Like so many miners, Raymond Moore, Henry’s father, determined that his son should not have to endure the dangers and hardships of working down the pit, and invested both time and resources to ensure that he received a good education. Without the foresight of his father, the world may have been deprived of a talented artist. However, the experiences of Henry Moore’s father and his own understanding of what it meant to be brought up in a coal mining community undoubtedly influenced the artist’s ability to depict the harsh conditions of working underground.
The exhibition “Drawing in the Dark” presented at St Alban’s Museum and Art Gallery brings together more than a hundred drawings created by Henry Moore in his capacity as an official artist commissioned to record the important contribution made by miners to the war effort between 1939 and 1945. In 1941, never having previously been under ground, Moore made an exploratory visit to a Castleford mine to see the conditions under which men were working to extract the material that fuelled so many of the factories, ships, and machinery essential to the defence of the nation. Returning in 1942, armed with his drawing materials and sketch book, which is also featured in the exhibition, he began to create a visual record of the lives of the Castleford miners.
Moore’s efforts to depict the brutal realities of war had already been recorded in his drawings of mainly women and children taking shelter from air raids in the London underground railway system. His haunting images of shadowy figures seeking refuge and trying to gain some respite from the blitz are well known and have been exhibited internationally, including at the Hermitage in St Petersburg in 2011 and were also featured in the documentary film “Out of Chaos” directed by Jill Craigie in 1944. Every space along the platforms appears to be occupied by frightened and exhausted individuals, many of whom must have been wondering whether the destruction being meted out above their heads would ever end. However, the new challenges of working in a coalmine were greater than any he had previously experienced. In conversation, Moore described his initial horror of the experience of being underground, crawling on his hands and knees. His insights into the challenges presented to him as an artist are fascinating as demonstrated in a 1974 interview with Rosamund Bernier for CBS in New York. In this encounter he described how the darkness dominated everything, and that the miners appeared simply as dim forms vaguely illuminated by their lamps and how their constant movement in the gloomy atmosphere presented him with new challenges to be overcome.

Enlightenment Emerges From Darkness, an essay by Richard Rose at Spillwords.com
Henry Moore (A Miner at Work)

Moore only had two weeks underground to produce a body of work that honoured the courage and endeavours of his subjects. This exhibition is a testament to the ways in which he confronted each challenge that he faced and maintained a focus on presenting the truth of what it meant to be a coal miner. The movement, dust, and discomfort of the contorted bodies of men wielding tools or struggling to shift heavy loads are captured in a series of wax resist drawings of great intensity and empathy. Men using machinery, leading ponies, pushing carts, and occasionally resting from their labours are presented with an obvious respect and admiration for their courage and determination. The all-enveloping darkness that pervades these drawings takes on the form of a central character, dominating every picture and surrounding each figure. The occasional views of seemingly never-ending tunnels along which the miners have made their way to the coal face replicates the long passageways of the underground railway presented in Moore’s earlier wartime images, but the discomfort here is far greater.
Moore observed and described the facial features of the men, streaked with coal dust that was adhered to skin by sweat. In interviews after the war, he recalled how the whites of the miner’s eyes became the central feature of their blackened faces, standing out from the surrounding darkness. He saw how men had licked their lips and in so doing had removed the blackness that otherwise obscured their mouths and how the creases around their eyes could sometimes be discerned standing bold from their gritty visage. In viewing his drawings, I was particularly struck by the faces of these men. It was Moore’s genius that captured the exhaustion that overwhelmingly becomes apparent in these dark portraits. The facial expressions appear blank, depicting no emotion, but anyone looking closely at the pictures cannot fail to recognise the impact of the efforts that these brave miners made while working in the most challenging of circumstances. There is a numbness about these men, imposed by effort and the severity of the conditions in which they work. It would appear from these images that the miners have come to embrace the hardship of their labours in a manner that manages to combine acceptance with pride. There is nobility here of a kind that is difficult to understand when considering the harshness of the environment in which Moore’s subjects were operating.
Of all the pictures in this exhibition, one that is simply called “miner with a lamp” held my attention longer than any other. The darkness of this image dominates, and one must look carefully to see the shape of the man emerging from a dank tunnel hewn from jagged rock, which he almost fills. Moore likened this image to one with which he was familiar from his childhood, Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World,” and indeed it is possible to see a clear resemblance between the Victorian painter’s picture and Moore’s drawing. The poignancy of such work, which demonstrates the importance played by light in all our lives, but especially for those who work in darkness, I found to be particularly moving.
Today in the UK, as in much of the world, many coalmines have been closed. Fossil fuels we now realise are damaging the environment and the move towards cleaner energy has gathered pace. This can only be good in terms of the benefits for our world, but something may also be lost when we consider the dignity of labour that characterised the lives of the men who toiled beneath the earth. Now, when we view Moore’s drawings from the mines, we are looking at events from the recent past. How, I wonder, will future generations regard these works? Henry Moore has bequeathed us not only a great legacy of magnificent art, but also a record of a crucial time in history and a view into the lives of those who shaped it. Those who believe that art is little more than decoration or that galleries are of value only to a privileged elite, may in the future come to recognise that accounts of the lives of working people such as have been provided by Henry Moore, have much to tell us about the ways in which the world we live in has been shaped.

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