Article by Martin Plant
Saddleworth Group of Artists, formed as a result of a proposal by Ellis Shaw, “To study and practise the Fine Arts and to hold exhibitions and meetings”, had a rather inauspicious start in 1950 with a letter of refusal from the Ministry of Food addressed to Miss M. Aitkenhead of Lees:
“With reference to your application for rationed goods required for the opening of The Saddleworth Art Group, I regret that regulations in force at the present time do not permit me to authorise any points which would enable you to purchase either biscuits or any other points goods.” ! (Food rationing ended in 1954)
Nevertheless, seventy years later, Saddleworth Group of Artists is flourishing. With a membership of nearly 50 artists, its influence extends beyond the organisation as a group. There are individual members who are qualified professionally, either as artists or as teachers, and there are those who are nationally recognised. Some of the artists run classes including life drawing and painting outdoors which are popular with fellow members and are also open to non members.
The long standing quality of the group’s artists is further reflected in the fact that L.S.Lowry chose to exhibit as a guest exhibitor in 1957 (at the first Saddleworth Festival, sponsored by Lord Rhodes and Roger Tanner. His drawing of Piccadilly, Manchester was bought by Margot Ingham of Mid-day Studios for £26 - 5 shillings). Another artist who exhibited then was Helen Bradley who became nationally known as a result of encouragement from Lowry to paint in “a naive manner”. Her most famous character in her paintings was “Miss Carter” who always wore pink. Her work now sells for many thousands of pounds.
The current two SGA exhibitions per year, held in the gallery at Saddleworth Museum, testify to the wide range of media skills and diversity in subject matter of its artists - whether the pictures be landscapes, portraits, or still lifes.
In 1950, at the group’s first exhibition at The Studio, Spring Street, a run down former weaving loft (dating from 1750) “where artistic activities began with makeshift exhibitions and nude models heated by a gas fire fed with pennies” (Les Barrow), the lowest price for a picture was one guinea (one pound and one shilling). (The cost then of a new Ford Anglia car was £310 and the average house price £1950!)
In those first few years, in association with the Carnegie Trust, many weekend schools were held at the Studio. These were conducted by some of the best painters in British contemporary art. Ruskin Spear, Joseph Herman, Keith Vaughan, L.S.Lowry, Edwin La Dell, Kyffin Williams, Stephen Bone, and Oldham born James Fitton all came to Saddleworth.
By the early 1970s, the work of painters like Gordon Radford, Russel Howarth, Albert Grice, Constance Crossley, and John McCombs (who is now nationally known) had become much sought after. John McCombs has dedicated his career to painting the village of Delph and the surrounding landscape. A specially commissioned set of his paintings of all the villages in Saddleworth is presently on display at Saddleworth Museum. Both Saddleworth Museum and Gallery Oldham have bought work by members for their permanent exhibitions, including pictures by Janis Bowie who is well known for her paintings of interiors of woollen mills and who is the current President of the group.
Seventy per cent of the members of the group in the 1950s were men. By the year 2000, there was a 50-50 gender split which is as it is today. What all the artists have in common is that art is central to their lives. “Why I paint, I cannot tell, but if I don’t put pen and pencil or brush to canvas, after a time I feel a void,” said Norman Wray, one of the earliest members of the group. Christine Bowman said in the year 2000, “What does “artist” mean? If I knew I might also know if I am one. None of my work has a deep meaning; it’s really just a celebration of places and landscape and an attempt to communicate by illustrating what I see. Sometimes what I see is not what other people see, and therein lies the mystery”.
Saddleworth offers a great environment for landscape artists. Sheila Dewsbury says, “My chief sources of subject matter for paintings are to be found in the wilder parts of Saddleworth, and places where the structure of open landscape is evident. Whether working in situ or in a studio, painting is a solitary occupation, therefore the feedback one receives from other people in the Saddleworth Group of Artists is doubly appreciated.”
In 2002, and every four years till 2010, SGA organised an event known as Journees de Peinture when artists from Europe and America came to Saddleworth to paint the landscape and to stay with SGA members and other local hosts and who, in return, visited their fellow artists in their home countries.
The tenancy of The Studio came to an end in 1979 but the group was “offered a lifeline” by Roger Tanner in the form of exhibition space in the new gallery attached to Saddleworth Museum. The association with the gallery has continued to the present time with two exhibitions a year held there. (For some years, exhibitions were also held at Brownhill Visitor Centre before it closed.)
This year’s summer exhibition, to celebrate the Group’s seventieth anniversary, was due to be held at Saddleworth Museum’s gallery but, of course, has had to be cancelled. It is hoped to mark the anniversary in the next show planned for November.