South Shields artist features in gallery dedicated to coal miner art

Artist Robert Olley is pictured with his work The Last Drop, 2007, Oil on canvas.  His work will be on display during at the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland, County Durham.
Artist Robert Olley is pictured with his work The Last Drop, 2007, Oil on canvas. His work will be on display during at the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland, County Durham.
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The work of a South Shields artist will appear in the country’s first gallery dedicated to coal miners’ art.

Bob Olley, 77, will have his work displayed in The Mining Art Gallery, which is set to open in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, as the first of its kind.

Bob Olley, 77, will have his work displayed in The Mining Art Gallery,

Bob Olley, 77, will have his work displayed in The Mining Art Gallery,

Mr Olley is a former miner whose Westoe Netty painting has become a cultural symbol of the working-class history of the North East.

His work will join the likes of renowned artists Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish in being displayed at the museum.

The new gallery has gathered 420 pieces, including paintings, drawings and prints which showcase the pitmen’s desire to tell the hidden story of their lives underground.

Mr Olley who worked underground for 11 years before becoming a professional painter, said that he felt that mining had led to a genre of art which other heavy industries like shipbuilding or steel had not inspired.

He said: “If you look at a coal mine, you can only see half of it, which is the top half.

“In days gone by, before cameras and mobile phones, you couldn’t show people ‘that’s what I do at work’.

“People had to describe what they did, they would do a sketch and say ‘that’s the sort of thing I do’.”

Mr Olley’s most famous painting The Westoe Netty was painted in 1972 and depicts a scene from inside a public toilet.

The original toilet was built in 1890 and was often used by workers going to the nearby Westoe Colliery.

Over the years Mr Olley has produced work for the likes of Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair.

Mr Olley added: “I think that may be part of why there’s so many people who came out of coal mining being artists.

“We are lucky because we have had the exposure, but there must have been thousands of other people in the industry that didn’t, and nobody has seen their work.”

The gallery has been a long-held ambition of local GP Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, both authors on mining art, who have built up a major collection over the past 20 years.

It is part of a drive to increase tourism to Bishop Auckland, including the Kynren historical spectacle which launched in 2016, and a display of priceless Spanish art which will open in the future.

The pair said they are delighted with the gallery, which will feature the work of Norman Cornish – who celebrated the spirit found in mining communities – and Tom McGuinness, whose art evokes the feeling of being underground.