Tom Whitehead

Near Rothwell. Leeds Museums and Galleries.

For generations coal was the lifeblood of Rothwell and the surrounding area. From Roman times it was dug up from near the surface and for over 200 years the deep mines made fortunes for land and colliery owners like the Stourtons, Calverleys and Charlesworths. For the miners, with names like Ward, Lunn, Firth, Abbishaw and Westmoreland, the “black diamonds” gave a hard fought living.

There were pits near Swillington, in Methley, at Woodlesford, Middleton, Robin Hood and Lofthouse as well as those on Rothwell Haigh and one, Rose pit, just a stone’s throw from Rothwell church.

Coal was in everybody’s veins but it was also a killer. The accident with the largest loss of life locally was at “Deep Drop” pit at Stanley in 1879 when an explosion claimed 21 men. The disaster at Lofthouse in 1973, in which 7 miners died in an inrush of water from old workings, is still commemorated. Many died in rockfalls. Boys as young as 13 or 14 were crushed by coal tubs. Their deaths were so commonplace they often went unrecorded in the local papers.

The surface too was scarred by the industry. The grimy and dusty pit tops with their winding wheels on top of wooden or steel headgears, tall chimneys belching smoke from boiler houses, clanking rusty railway wagons, and grey slag heaps oozing pools of stinking stagnant water, were seen by outsiders as dirty and degrading.

But one Rothwell man could see a kind of beauty in the landscape and he set about capturing it in paintings, some of which are shown here. His name was Tom Whitehead and for many years his work has been largely forgotten. During the 1940s and 50s though, critics wrote glowing reviews of his exhibitions describing him as an up and coming “modern” artist along with contemporaries like Sir Matthew Smith. The famous sculptors, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, who also drew their inspiration from the gritty West Riding industrial scene, were often mentioned in the same articles.

Although he wasn’t a miner himself Tom Whitehead came from a mining family. Both his grandfathers were pitmen as well as his father and uncles. Born in 1903 he grew up on Marsh Street and went to the “council” school on Carlton Lane. Also there was one of his cousins, Billy Williams, the future manager at Water Haigh colliery.

West Riding Landscape. The Hepworth, Wakefield.

Tom started painting shortly after he went to work as a shop assistant at the age of 13. His spare cash went on artist’s materials and he learned what he could from looking at reproductions in library books. As a boy he went on walks and bike rides with his father who encouraged in him a love of nature and it must have been on those rambles that he first encountered the dramatic colliery views he would paint for posterity.

He also cycled with friends to the Dales and the Lake District which he revisited all his life. He was once asked why he didn’t paint the scenery there but he said that as a “mere visitor” he couldn’t reproduce it with the kind of “intimate knowledge” it required. It was only through the landscape he actually lived in that he could express the quality of what he saw. 

Rothwell Co-op was on the corner of Commercial Street and Church Street opposite the Hare & Hounds.

Tom spent most of his working life in the drapery department of the Co-op in Rothwell and painted in a garage in his garden on Sundays, on summer evenings, and his half day off on Wednesday afternoons. It was through the Co-op he met his wife Blanche Hoyland Webster, a Leeds lass from Headingley, and they were married in 1938. During the Second World War they were separated with Tom serving with the Royal Army Service Corps in Holland, Belgium and France where he continued to draw. On a visit to an Amsterdam gallery he was greatly impressed by the work of Vincent Van Gogh.

From a Rothwell Window. The Hepworth, Wakefield.

It was during the war that two of Tom Whitehead’s paintings came to the notice of Bill Oliver, art critic of the Yorkshire Post. He described them as “vivid works announcing a born painter.” Bill continued to find space in his reviews to praise Tom’s colliery pictures as well as studies of flowers in which he also specialised. In a report of an exhibition at the parish hall in Rothwell he wrote: “Mr. Whiteheads’s glowing, richly decorative still life studies show strong traces of Matthew Smith and Matisse, but this young Rothwell artist does not merely imitate the technique and the colour harmonies of these masters. More and more his own individuality is emerging. All of these pieces show his flair for the bold use of colour and one brings out strongly his intense feeling for the form.”

Yorkshire Post.

Another supporter was Helen Kapp, the dynamic director of the Wakefield City Art Gallery. In 1955 she set aside a room filled with twelve of Tom’s paintings at the “Modern Art in Yorkshire” exhibition. All had simple titles like “Slag Heap No 1,” “Red Bridge,” or “Industrial Valley.” Six were sold quickly. The exact locations of the colliery paintings are unknown although it’s thought they were mainly of Fanny Pit on Bullough Lane or Rose Pit which was the closest to Tom’s childhood home.

Tragically, just as he was on the cusp of becoming more widely recognised, Tom Whitehead died of a heart attack at the age of 54 in the summer of 1959. On a hot day he’d been lifting a heavy roll of lino at the Co-op when he felt unwell and asked to be taken home where he passed away. Blanche was distraught with grief but she took some comfort a few months later when Helen Kapp asked if she could show some of Tom’s paintings in a memorial exhibition.

Red Sky, Red Earth. Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council.

Over 40 were discovered in the garage and they were put on display the following May as part of an exhibition opened by the Labour MP Tom Driberg. All were sold, mainly to private buyers, although some went to public galleries including Leeds which bought “West Riding Landscape” for £20. Three stayed in Wakefield and are now at the new Hepworth gallery. Sir Gerald Barry, organiser of the Festival of Britain in 1951 and an executive at Granada TV, bought “Mills” for 12 guineas. Five of the paintings can be seen on the Artworks website although, by mistake, some of the works shown are by another artist with the same name who came from Halifax.

Blanche described the memorial exhibition as a proud moment: “I do not think I would have done anything with the paintings if Miss Kapp had not asked me for some. Tom would have not thought them good enough because he was always trying to do better. There would have been hundreds more but he was short of money to buy materials. He often covered up his painting and did another picture on the same canvas. Often he used cardboard. It was a struggle but he kept going. Painting was his life.”

Most of Tom’s paintings were done in the optimistic period after the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947. After the post-war shortages were overcome people in the Rothwell district looked forward to a brighter future. Many moved into newly built council houses and the pits provided incomes for a majority of the households. Now the mines have long gone, destroyed, some would say, by a vindictive government. At least we have Tom’s art to remind us of the rugged beauty of the everyday scenes that once dominated the area.     

As Helen Kapp wrote: “Tom Whitehead was a delightful and rare personality, so modest that even with his unusual gifts, he could not push himself or try to impress himself on anyone. His death was a sad loss, for his art was beginning to flower in quite a remarkable way and there is no knowing what heights he might have attained. He had a passionate and unique vision of the colliery landscape by which he was surrounded. The drama and strange, lonely, and sometimes sinister quality of this peculiar man-made landscape has never been more beautifully or poetically recorded.”

Howard Benson

Industrial Valley.