New exhibition unearths bond between Bishops and mining community

A new exhibition which examines the relationship between the Bishops of Durham and the local mining community has opened at Auckland Castle.

Works by two of County Durham’s best known mining artists, Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness, are featured alongside previously unseen objects in Pitmen and Prelates.

The link between the pitmen and prelates – high-ranking Church dignitaries such as bishops – is found in the rights to mine coal in the area.

“Dating back to the 12th Century, to the 1100’s, the Bishops of Durham owned the mineral rights to the land in County Durham,” explains Clare Baron, the curator of temporary exhibitions at Auckland Castle.

“They were powerful secular lords and that was one of their key powers, and this generated income for them. They allowed other people to mine, but that was for a fee.”

The retrospective looks at the period between the Industrial Revolution and the Thatcher era and focuses on six bishops. Some of the bishops took a great interest in the welfare of the miners and their communities.

Bishop Edward Maltby spoke out about the safety and moral wellbeing of those who worked in the mine and criticised pit owners.

But relationships were not always simple, as Bishop Herbert Hensley Henson found when he arrived in Durham during a miners strike. He believed that strikes were morally wrong and is said to have held a ‘violent, almost obsessional, dislike of trade unions’. Resentment grew and during the Miners’ Gala of 1925 members of the community almost threw the Dean of Durham in the River Wear, having mistaken him for Bishop Henson.

“We are privileged to feature the work of two of perhaps County Durham’s best known mining artists in Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness. The Ashington Pitmen Painters are probably today better known, but there was a thriving and respected creative community around Spennymoor in the 1930s,” said Clare.

Some of the art in the exhibition comes from Auckland Castle’s collection, but much has been loaned by others. Robert McManners and Gillian Wales began the Gemini Collection as a result of their research for a book about Tom McGuinness. They found that mining art was not only unrecorded, but had also been undervalued by the art world.

Their collection, which numbers over 250 works, has been widely exhibited throughout the UK and abroad. The opening of the Pitmen and Prelates exhibition coincides with the third impression of their book, Shafts of Light, which features more than 70 coalfield artists and is available to buy at the Castle.

The exhibition is open until Friday, 30th September, after which time conservation work will begin on the Castle’s State Rooms. Building work will also start on a new museum extension to house the Faith galleries.

Auckland Castle is open every day except Tuesday 10.00am-5.00pm, last admission 4.00pm. Admission: Adults, £6; Concessions, £5; Under-16s free.