The Pits and the Pendulums
National Coal Mining Museum, Wakefield
Andrew Turner is Britain’s foremost commissioned painter of trade union banners. His creations are not in the familiar conventional style, with depictions of union leaders and the simple imagery of brother workers shaking hands, women representing Justice or Liberty, or stairways to socialist paradise.
Turner’s work is intensely political, containing symbolism of such power that his banner for North Selby branch of the National Union of Mineworkers in Yorkshire was banned from the pit-head by British Coal management in the late 1980s because it was ‘too provocative’.
Turner created the banner after the miners’ strike against pit closures of 1984-85. It depicts pitmen pushing against a gravestone as it is forced down on them by mounted police. Central is a fallen miner. To his left are key figures representing the forces aligned against the striking miners: Margaret Thatcher, financiers, lawyers and media barons.
There is anger in much of Turner’s work. And often there is dark humour. In my own home hangs a print of one of his drawings – two miners dancing a jig, arm in arm, laughing. Its title is The nation mourns the death of Churchill.
Attempts to borrow one banner for this exhibition, The Pits and the Pendulums: coal miners versus free markets, failed. The former GMWU Manchester 115 branch banner is affectionately known as ‘The Hulk’. It depicts a muscular worker tearing chains apart with his hands. The union said that with forthcoming battles expected over government attacks on public services, the banner would be needed on the streets, not in an exhibition. Such is the current relevance of Turner’s work.
Born in 1939, Turner began to draw as a boy, sitting beneath the kitchen table of his home in Stoneyburn, West Lothian, Scotland, where his father was a miner. Around the table in the 1940s, miners discussed the pit, the union, politics, socialism, communism. His uncle was a founding member of the Communist Party in Scotland.
Turner, now 70 and living in Leeds, did not follow his father down the pit. He worked as a trawlerman, then attended Edinburgh College of Art.
Political activity saw him expelled. In 1962 he led a march on the city’s US consulate during the Cuban missile crisis – the clash between the US and the Soviet Union that could have sparked nuclear war. He was told he had ‘brought the college into disrepute’. He attended Leeds College of Art, then the Royal Academy in London, where he was president of the students’ union.
His diploma piece at the RA was the arresting Black Friday Triptych (pictured above), portraying the miners’ disputes of the 1920s, involving solidarity, betrayal, success and defeat, and connecting them to the strikes of 1972 and 1974. The painting also augured the 1984-85 strike against pit closures. Turner refers to it as a warning. Black Friday has been loaned to the exhibition by the South Wales area of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Another darkly allegorical yet vibrant exhibit is a banner made for the Leeds branch of the train drivers’ union Aslef. Nick Whitehead, Yorkshire regional organiser of the union, said: ‘There were gasps when it was unveiled at our club in Leeds.’
Turner, who has created two dozen banners, most taking at least a year to complete, is currently working on a new banner for the Women Against Pit Closures movement. The exhibition runs until January 23, and entry is free.