The story of the ‘Pitmen Painters’, working away on kitchen tables and in village halls between long shifts in the coal mines of the North East, is now well known. Less familiar, however, is the story of the artists who worked in Tyneside’s other major industry. Shipyards like Swan Hunter, Palmers and Redhead, employed thousands of men and women from local communities, building ships and exporting goods around the globe.
Among the workforce was James Williamson Bell. After briefly studying art at The Linskill School in North Shields, Bell began his career at Swan Hunter as a draughtsman in the 1960s. A talented artist from a young age, Bell was one of a number of painters, sculptors and printmakers who used their expressive art as a relief from the precision and attention to detail required on the yard.
By 1974, the need to paint took over, and Bell took the difficult decision to leave the yard. One of the privileged few able to make a living from his art, Bell’s great strength was an ability to turn his hand to a broad range of artistic approaches. Through constant experimentation and a restless, eclectic application of techniques, he thoughtfully used each method to express his exact intention for a particular project, creating a diverse body of work.
Bell’s subject matter was as diverse as his style. As one of the first members of the prestigious Society of Wildlife Artists (and for a long period, the only member in the North of England), he produced finely detailed studies of native and exotic birds. As his reputation grew, Bell was able to travel more widely, spending many months in China where he developed a fascination with Chinese brush painting. The technique strongly influenced his painting, as suited to capturing the inky river darkness and soaring cranes of the shipyards as it was to the lantern-lined Shanxi streets and shrieking cockerels of the Far East.
Bell exhibited his work as far afield as Paris, New York, South Korea, Nairobi and China, but it was the River Tyne and industrial North East which provided the rich source of imagery that he returned to again and again. Towering cranes at Wallsend, characterful North Shields pubs and crowded Newcastle bridges are all included in this exhibition, alongside exquisitely detailed wildlife studies and energetic travel sketches. Taken together, these images create not just a portrait of working life on Tyneside, but of an artist overflowing with creativity and a drive to capture the world around him.
Images, from the top:
Central Station, Newcastle, ink and watercolour on paper
Brief Encounter, acrylic on board
Gem, Chinese ink and watercolour on paper
© Artist's Estate
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