Pitman’s art to go on show - 130 years after his birth

Artist Jean Spence (second right) with Colin Kays (son of Jimmy Kays) and (left to right) Christina Borrill, Elsa Kyle and Lynn Walshaw (granddaughters of Jimmy Kays).
Artist Jean Spence (second right) with Colin Kays (son of Jimmy Kays) and (left to right) Christina Borrill, Elsa Kyle and Lynn Walshaw (granddaughters of Jimmy Kays).
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The artwork of a forgotten Wearside pitman painter is to be the focus of a series of talks and workshops.

Easington Lane-born James Kays dabbled with art throughout his life. Indeed, a series of his sketches were published in the Weekly Star newspaper during the 1920s.

Artist pitman Jimmy Kays pictured on his wedding day with bride Mary Ann.

Artist pitman Jimmy Kays pictured on his wedding day with bride Mary Ann.

But his work was largely forgotten over the years – until Jean Spence, a member of East Durham Artists’ Network, snapped up some on eBay and launched an appeal for information on him via the Echo.

“I knew I was bidding on the work of a Horden miner, as Jimmy had signed several of his pictures and there was a Horden address on some cartoons,” said the local history and art enthusiast.

“But what I didn’t realise, until seeing his work, was how talented he was. He captured a wonderful snapshot of life – hence the Network’s decision to make him the focus of talks, workshops and exhibitions.”

Jimmy was born to 22-year-old Nellie Kays on January 4, 1886, in Easington Lane. But, although his early years were spent in the village, the family later moved to Merrington Lane, Spennymoor.

EARLY DRAWING: This James Kays cartoon is dated 1912.

EARLY DRAWING: This James Kays cartoon is dated 1912.

“He followed in the footsteps of his father, Bernard, to become a miner at just 13. It is possible that much of his mining imagery came from his observations and experiences from the local pit.

“His work, of course, predates that of the Spennymoor Settlement – pitman artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness – but I wonder if there is some connecting thread – a school teacher perhaps?”

Jimmy married his first wife, Mary Ann Whittaker, on November 14, 1908, in Chester-le-Street. The happy couple had five children before war broke out and Jimmy was sent to fight in Europe.

“He had a lot of tragedy in his life. One of his children was born and died in 1915 and, in May that year, two of his brothers – Thomas and Bernard Penman – were killed in Belgium,” said Jean.

“Jimmy’s mother also died in 1915, and then his wife Mary Ann died in 1918 – the same year he was injured. His eldest daughter, Doris, was later killed in a hit-and-run in London in 1944 as well.”

By the time Mary Ann died Jimmy had recovered from his war wounds and was working at Horden pit.

He continued to care for his children alone until 1925, when he married Margaret Daley.

The couple had two children, but tragedy struck again in 1939, when Margaret died just three weeks after giving birth to son Colin. Jimmy was, once more, left alone with his children.

“Jimmy left mining at some point; I’m not sure why,” said Jean. “He was a Labour man and union activism may have played a part, but it might have been because he took part in a demonstration.

“I can find no records to prove this but, what is certain, is that he went on to work as a binman and ended his career as a watchman. He died in 1951, of pneumonia and heart problems, aged just 65.”

The Artists’ Network is to host a display of Jimmy’s artwork at the Art Block, Church Street, Seaham, from today until February 27, in a bid to make the pitman’s work better known.

A series of talks is also to be held at the Art Block focussing on Jimmy, as well as a cartoon workshop inspired by the pitman on February 8, from 6.30-8.30pm.

“The talks and workshops have been designed with direct reference to the artwork that Jimmy produced at home. He did not have a studio, and had very little money for materials,” said Jean.

“In his later years he had a printing press in the bedroom of his council house in Horden. But, although he dreamed of becoming an artist, he had no other realistic option other than mining.

“He was never very well off financially and, apart from the cartoons which were published in the Weekly Star in 1923, he doesn’t seem to have generated any income from his art.”

l The Jimmy Kays exhibition at the Art Block, Seaham, is open Tuesday-Saturday, from 11am-3pm and is free. Tonight’s talk on The Significance of Jimmy Kays starts at 6.30pm. For more information about Jimmy, contact 07881 380027, email edanart@live.com or visit www.edan.org.uk