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Memorable marks of the collective spirit

MIKE QUILLE recommends paintings of working-class life on Teesside

Beyond The Wilderness Road: Paintings By David Watson

McGuinness Gallery, Bishop Auckland/Constantine Gallery, Middlesbrough

4/5

INTELLIGENT and critical readers of our paper’s arts pages — and what other kind are there? — will recall that David Mulholland’s exhibition in Kirkleatham on Teesside got a favourable review. 

Somewhat amazingly, two other artists of distinction came from the same year of the same school in Middlesbrough he attended — Len Tabner, who’s fairly well known, with a long list of exhibitions to his credit, and David Watson. At the age of 70, he’s about to be exhibited at the university in Middlesbrough, the town he devoted his life’s work to, for the first time.

Like his fellow artists, Watson was born in the fiercely working-class community of South Bank, the “backbone, lungs and hands” of industrial Teesside.

Unlike them, his difficulties with maths and English meant he couldn’t go to university, so he got a job painting the sides of ships in the days when Middlesbrough had a shipbuilding industry. 

But he never stopped another kind of painting, working on boards, canvases and even curtain liners, capturing the soul of Middlesbrough and the toughness, humour and hard work of the northern industrial working class.

Watson’s technique in most of his paintings is similar — with thick sweeps, he uses heavily loaded brushes to bring out the shapes and perspective in the composition. 

The approach varies, though. Sometimes there is a kind of smoggy and dour realism, as in his paintings of men going to and from work or women seacoaling. 

Sometimes the paintings are beautiful, almost abstract symphonies of dark, rich colours and strong forms as in White Ship With Funnels and Life In The Rust. 

And in the many paintings of groups of working men, there is a comical and almost cartoonish quality which overlays a deeply felt melancholy. Look, for example, at how The Gaffer conveys in an immediate and engaging way both the strength and the vulnerability of steel workers as they huddle round their gaffer like a Greek chorus. 

The paintings are direct, pure and simple, with an instant and powerful emotional punch. Where LS Lowry painted social distance, alienation and loneliness, Watson paints social warmth and the collective spirit, the closeness of known communities and localities. 

He is like Stanley Spencer in the visionary quality of his depictions of communal life and van Gogh in the pervasive sense of suffering and melancholy in his work.

The Middlesbrough School — for that is what these three painters should be known as — invites comparison with the Manchester School of Painters in the early 20th century or the Pitmen Painters of Northumberland in the 1930s. They have succeeded, in the face of neglect and opposition from the art world, in expressing the distinctly untrendy working-class culture of Middlesbrough in the later years of the last century. 

Watson especially, because his art is unencumbered by formal training, is true to its roots. He avoids both sentimental populism and some of the obscurities of artistic debate and abstract practice. Instead his work expresses a glowing sense of memory, work, and locality.

As with David Mulholland, you leave the gallery pondering some worrying questions. Why has this work been so neglected, for so long? Why is it that we don’t see this kind of art more often? How many more artists like Watson are there who have painted the car factories of Birmingham, the mill towns of Lancashire, the shipyards and tenements of the Clyde and the communities of the East End? 

Why is this kind of working-class art so unacknowledged, discouraged, erased and denied by major British galleries?

Try to see this exhibition if you can. If not, seek out its equivalent in your local art gallery. And if it’s not there, ask them some intelligent and critical questions.

 

Beyond the Wilderness Road runs at the McGuinness Gallery, Bishop Auckland, until July 19 and then at the Constantine Gallery, Teesside University, Middlesbrough, until September 18. Free.

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