Historic artworks found on eBay

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Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner today draws on the past for an artistic appeal.

LOCAL history and art enthusiast Jean Spence is hoping to trace the descendants of a Wearside painter – after snapping up a batch of his work online.

EARLY DRAWING: This James Kays cartoon is dated 1912.

EARLY DRAWING: This James Kays cartoon is dated 1912.

Jean, a member of East Durham Artists Network, fell in love with a collection of caricatures drawn by Horden pitman James Kays after discovering them on eBay.

Now she is planning to display the artwork at an exhibition in Seaham in February – and would like to invite relatives of the World War One hero to the event.

“I knew I was bidding on the work of a Horden miner, as Jimmy Kays signed most of his pictures and there was an address at Horden on his later cartoons,” she said.

“My great-grandfather worked at Horden pit and it was because of this connection – as well as my interest in mining art and communities – that I wanted to buy them.

“But I just couldn’t believe it when I opened the package of his work. The pictures are a wonderful snapshot of what life was like for miners pre-WWI and in the 1920s.”

It is believed that James, son of pitman Michael Kays and his wife Margaret, was born in Easington Lane in 1881, the oldest of eight children. He then followed in his father’s footsteps to become a hewer and, by the time of the 1901 census, James was living with his family at Back Burdon Street, in Ryhope.

Just a few years later he married his Seaham sweetheart, Mary, and set up home at Wilson Terrace, Silksworth. By 1911, they had three children; Annie, Michael and James.

“Kays produced most of his cartoons for a paper called the Weekly Star and one of the earliest is dated 1912, when he would have been living in Silksworth,” said Jean.

“Most of the pictures are ink drawings and cartoons of mining characters. It is clear that Kays took his primary inspiration from his insider knowledge of the pits.

“However, some additional drawings, including prints intended as calendars or cards – as well as a very sensitive portrait of a woman – spill out into life outside the mines.

“The world portrayed, the language and the humour, are now matters of history. They have been lost, like records of the artist himself, to succeeding generations.”

Indeed, it seems that just as James was beginning to enjoy some success with his artwork, the storm clouds of conflict started gathering and World War One broke out.

Within months, James had enlisted as a private in the Labour Corps and on January 1, 1915, he embarked for France – likely seeing action in several bloody battles.

“Sadly, his full war record appears to have been lost in the air raid on London which destroyed so many Great War records during the Second World War,” said Jean.

“But I know Kays served with the 13/Lab Coy RASC at first - possibly as a shoe-smith. He remained in France for several years, although his unit number changed.”

On May 18, 1918, however, it was reported in the Echo that Private James Kays, a Labour Corps soldier from 16 Henry Street, New Silksworth, was “seriously ill”.

Just two months later, on July 4, he was discharged from the army and awarded a Silver War Badge for wounds, as well as the Victory, British and 15 Star medals.

“Kays survived his injuries and his art was published in the Weekly Star in the 1920s, by which time he’d moved to Horden. He later moved back to Silksworth,” said Jean.

“I believe that he died in around 1953, so maybe someone, somewhere, will still be able to remember him. It would be wonderful to track down members of his family.

“I’d love to find out more about him, what sparked his interest in art and how his life went after the war. Perhaps an Echo reader will be able to shed some light on him.”

l The James Kays display will be hosted by East Durham Artists Network at the Art Block, 74 Church Street, Seaham, from February 17 to March 28 – to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the end of the Miners’ Strike. The free display will be open each Tuesday to Saturday, from 11am-3pm. Anyone with information on James Kays should contact 07734 743 134 or contact Jean via email at jean.spence@btinternet.com