HARRY MALKIN IN ‘MODERN MASTERS’, ACCORDING TO MCGEE, YORK
Harry Malkin provides his depictions of life underground as part of According to McGee’s inaugural ‘Modern Masters’ (‘the greatest Contemporary Painters of the North’) series of exhibitions.
Malkin was a miner, just like his father and grandfather before him, until the strike of 1984. When Fryston Colliery closed, by then working as a fitter at the pit, Harry started drawing, taking off for countryside walks with his sketchbook after picketing.
He drew pictures of life at the coal face, and while the job and the pit have gone, the memories have not, and Harry continues to paint images that bear witness to the toil of the miner. His latest work can be seen in ‘Modern Masters’ in York’s contemporary gallery, opposite Clifford’s Tower.
“Some fellow ex-miners like the nitty-gritty of the images, but there are a great many of them who just want to forget because a lot of them went through terrible times in the strike, and before and after it, losing their job, their house, their wife. It brings back lots of memories.”
Born in Castleford, Harry can recall first painting on his father’s back when he came home from work. He went on to teach himself to draw, and once the pit closed, he took a job drawing in dots the archaeological stone brought out of the Pontefract castle dig. It was to be the precursor to turning to painting full time, and mines were destined to play a central role in that artwork.
It was not, however, out of a sense of condemnation for the devastation wrought on Yorkshire’s mining communities by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
“I know a lot of people would encourage that sort of image, but it was part of you, part of your life, and since finishing at the pit I’ve re-married and it’s a different life you take up.
“It’s certainly different sat here at this gallery than being down the pit 25 years ago,” he says.
“I didn’t want to bring some of my very personal memories to the paintings; to some extent the paintings are not just paintings but about moving on and progressing with your art.
“Mining pictures are big part of what I do, but sometimes it’s good to get away from it, like when I do big public artworks, when it’s good to get inside someone else’s mind. Otherwise you could end up dwelling on things, but now I have a lad and it’ll be an interesting education for him when he sees some of the work I’ve done.”
Harry’s mining pictures are, in part, an historic documentation of times now gone, and not surprisingly the National Coal Mining Museum at Wakefield has acquired some of his works.
“I also do sessions with schools at the museum because the schools are proud of their mining links and so it’s good to do workshops with them.”
Before the 20th century and indeed through to the Second World War, paintings of Britain’s industries were done by professional artists. Harry’s artwork stands apart.
“The professionals gave an outside view of what industry was like, but there’s a difference between spending three days down a mine and spending your life down there, where you have to work under duress.
“I worked just short of 20 years at the pit, and occasionally I now work as hard as I ever did, but it’s far more pleasant now,” he says.
His motive in taking up painting and joining the Pontefract Art Club during the strike was to capture the inside track of life down the pit. “I was interested in showing an aspect of Yorkshire life that people never get to see: underground, down a hole that’s a mile deep.
“The paintings are a record of a lifetime’s work that thousands and thousands of people in Yorkshire did, and at least half the local population would never have seen the conditions because no women ever worked down there.”
Whereas a professional painter might have romanticised or ennobled the graft of a miner in his pictorial imagery, Harry holds no truck with that.
“A picture is not just about the beauty of life but the life you live,” he says.
“Conditions never improved. I worked in the same conditions as my father did and my grandfather did. We still had Victorian practices. The machines got bigger, but they kicked up more dust and just as much water.
“The basic tools never changed; you still had to open an inlet with basic tools, explosives and drills and work with picks and shovels.”
Gallerist Greg McGee is delighted Harry took up the suggestion of fellow artist Jake Attree to contact the Tower Street gallery.
“There is no sleight of hand here, no buzzwords; this is respectful, genuine draughtsmanship revealing a world of torch-lit hard labour in conditions that were already by the 1970s a century out of date.
“Only an ex-miner can produce such paintings about mining.
“Only someone who has worked more than one mile underground, at times up to his bollocks in freezing black water, other times taking a tea break with a mate or two during ‘snaptime’, can connect us so immediately to a vital, bristling world where backs ache, lungs fill with dust and only teamwork and generations of hard-won skill can safeguard against constant danger.”
Initially Greg and Ails McGee had been keen on the political slant, the chance to “ bring to light some of the issues of the Big Strike, laying on the anti-Thatcher shtick thick with the somewhat glib title of Thatcher: Soul Snatcher”.
“But when we saw the work in the flesh, with its glowing beauty, its highly informed focus on the aesthetics and guts of mining we mellowed a little,” says Ails.
“This show is a simple tribute to a simple view of working life that, only a short time ago, sustained whole communities all over the UK, especially up here in the North. Thatcher and her ugly epoch put paid to that and, criminally, there were no contingency plans in place.”
Art used to be able to reflect the traditional working class, suggests Greg.
“What there was has now sunk into the underclass or non-working class. There are estates everywhere that used to be desperately poor but proud, co-operative and united: now they’re crack drenched war zones, ruled by ten-year-old boys in hoodies,” he says.
“Harry’s memories of life underground, the graft and the subsequent art that so beautifully depicts it, belongs to a disappearing world and is therefore all the more precious.”
Abridged and edited from conversations with Charles Hutchinson, York Press, 2010 – 2016
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