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Alumnus awarded OBE for services to culture and heritage

Talking to an inspirational alumnus, Bob McManners, we found out how he was awarded a prestigious OBE for his services to culture and heritage and the work he has put in to establish the unique Mining Art Gallery, part of The Auckland Project.

Tell us about yourself and what you studied?

“I studied Medicine at Newcastle University starting in 1966 and qualifying in 1971. I then took a postgraduate medical course that finished in 1975, later qualifying with an MA from Durham University in 1992 in Medical Education. I was awarded an OBE for my services to culture and heritage in the North East, mainly due to my campaign work to save the Zurbaran paintings in Auckland Castle and later the establishment of the Mining Art Gallery.”

What’s your experience of studying at Newcastle University and living in Newcastle upon Tyne?

“I loved Newcastle University and Newcastle is THE city as far as I’m concerned. Newcastle United Football Club also holds an important place in my heart!

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Newcastle University. Medicine was a hard course, very busy all of the time but I just managed to squeeze playing rugby into my schedule! I played rugby for four years for the University 1st XV, was Captain 1968-9, and then went on to play for the Newcastle Medicals. I made friends for life and still meet other alumni on a regular basis including the Rugby team and Medical Rugby team.”

What is The Auckland Project, what have you achieved and how did the project come about?

“Auckland Castle sits in the heart of my hometown, Bishop Auckland, County Durham. As the traditional home of the Bishop of Durham, 13 artworks by Francisco de Zurbaran depicting Jacob and his 12 sons have proudly hung in its Long Dining Room since the 1750s. At that time, Bishop Trevor bought them to represent his staunch antagonism to the persecution of Jewish people in this country. I wrote a book stating why the Zurbarans should never be sold off representing as they do, racial, religious and ethnic tolerance. I was compelled to do so by the actions of the Church Commissioners who were looking to secretly sell the series. The philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer read my book and said that he would like to buy the paintings, securing the future of the artworks in the North East. From there, The Auckland Project grew that now looks to revitalise the local area through heritage.

“The Mining Art Gallery is part of The Auckland Project. This unique gallery is the first in the country to be dedicated to mining art. It exhibits a collection of art by miners about the coalmines. This is experiential, emotive art, in that it tells you what it felt like to be a miner, rather than what it looked like. It is their ‘language’.

“This is part of our heritage that had nearly disappeared from living memory.

“The collection was created by myself and long-term friend, Gillian Wales. We are both huge fans of Tom McGuinness. We agreed to catalogue Tom’s work, this turned out to be our first book, Tom’s biography. We have since written six books on mining art including biographies of mining artists. ‘Shafts of Light’, considered the definitive work on mining art, won for us The Arts Council’s independent Publishers Award in 2004. The book was five years in the research and writing and features over 70 coalfield artists, contextualising the historical and sociological importance of the coal industry.

“Our 25 years of research showed that we should be collecting, not just researching and writing, as these works were disappearing and depreciating as time went on.

“The Gemini Collection is our collection of mining art of 423 artworks that have now been donated to The Auckland Project.”

Why is the Mining Art Gallery important to the region and the community?

“This heritage is disappearing fast and people are remembering it for the wrong reasons. Mining’s not remembered for the grim reality but with a rosy glow of nostalgia. These artworks were communication, not just illustration. The voice of the miner was often ignored, but the visual impact was much more forceful. Many of the mining artists, such as Tom McGuiness, spoke more eloquently through their art than with their words.

“This is their heritage, who better to tell their story than the miners? They were there. Mines were all pervasive in the communities. A way of life. They dictated how communities behaved, when they ate, when they slept and even told them the time of day.”

What are your plans for the future?

“We have put this significant collection of mining artworks into a trust and given them to The Auckland Project to be added to, conserved, and displayed in the Mining Art Gallery. We will continue to have artistic and advisory input into the gallery and we are passionate that this collection will never be dispersed and sold-off but will continue to be made available to the public.”  

Interested to find out more? You can visit the Mining Art Gallery in County Durham and ‘experience life through the eyes of prominent mining artists from coalfields around the country’ www.aucklandproject.org/venues/mining-art-gallery

Bob McManners
Bob McManners (left), Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland Market Place, The Auckland Project (right)

published on: 11 November 2019