Evans, Nicholas - VM - David Pott
Nicholas Evans: Entombed – Jesus in the Midst
Symphonies in Black
by David Pott
In 1978 a self-taught Welsh pensioner became an overnight sensation in the art world. Nicholas Evans was ‘discovered’ by the art critic Lawrence Gowing who said about him, “One's first reaction is an almost incredulous gratitude that such a painter, at any age, should be working anywhere among us.”
Nicholas Evans was born in Aberdare in southwest Wales in 1907. At school his teacher recognized his talent for drawing and gave him a pencil, but he soon gave up as his parents could not afford to buy him paper to draw on. He went down to work in the mining pit aged 13. When he was only 16, his father died an awful death in a mining accident. He was only 43.
As Nicholas continued working down the pit, he was impacted by the testimony of the man he worked with who was known by his work mates as Dai Pentecostal. Dai would often sing hymns while working, wielding his mandrel and cutting coal to the rhythm of the tunes. Nicholas himself learned the songs and sang them as well. Dai's influence on him was deep, helping him to come to faith not long after his father's death. Later in life he became a Pentecostal lay-preacher and would throughout the rest of his life preach at meetings around the area.
Two uncles and other neighbours died in accidents and his mother persuaded him that he must leave the mines for good which he did when he was 19. He worked on the railways where he became an engine driver.
When he retired in the 70’s someone gave him a Phaidon book about Vincent van Gogh and it was that which led him to take up painting. He was totally self-taught. He sought God for guidance and believed that every painting was an act of worship. His work is all about the lives of miners in his community in Wales but with a spiritual perspective. He viewed the miners and the mines as a wonderful allegory of our spiritual life here on earth, where we are stuck below the surface with a whole additional beautiful world waiting for us above. His paintings look as if he has used coal dust and shades of black predominate with the occasional gleam of yellow. He often used his fingers and a soft rag in the painting process. As Alf Corlett wrote: “One could call his paintings ‘symphonies in black’. He has made black the medium of his Welsh eloquence. Beginning with the absolute black of fresh-hewn coal, he scrapes, rubs, smudges, smears till he has wrested a thousand shades of meaning from that mysterious non-colour.”
His best-known painting is an early work full of drama entitled Entombed – Jesus in the Midst. There’s been a disaster – a group of miners is huddled, sharing fear and hopelessness after being entombed underground by a roof fall, with no way of escape. They are trapped in the darkness and their lights, forming a useless central pile in the foreground, have gone out. The rats are a sinister presence in the left foreground.
Suddenly Jesus appears. He’s dressed as a miner. This carefully structured painting with the miner’s lamp at the apex serves to highlight the powerful figure of Christ. He stands calm, strong and serene, full of both mercy and hope. The impact of Christ’s presence means that the miners are transitioning from fear, hopelessness and despair to worship and adoration. The miner on the left is already in that posture of worship. The whole structure of the painting is reminiscent of medieval paintings where Jesus is either on the cross, rising from the tomb or ascending to heaven and a cluster of people are in worship in the lower part of the painting.
Christ carries in his huge hands a lighted lamp whose rays pierce the darkness – perhaps Evans had in mind Holman Hunt’s Light of the World here. But Christ also holds out above their heads a bunch of golden keys, jangling them to awaken them out of despair and encourage them to rise up and follow him out of darkness into the light. There is possibly a biblical reference here to the angel awakening Peter in the dungeon in Acts 12.
This is most surely a work that is worthy of meditation, speaking powerfully about the legacy of mining, the human condition and Christian hope.
Nicholas Evans: Entombed – Jesus in the Midst, 1974, oil on canvas. 137.2 x 91.0 cm.
Nicholas Evans died in 2004 at the age of 97. His gravestone is engraved with the words: Nicholas Evans – Pilgrim and Painter: “I’d rather lead a soul to the Lord than paint a Mona Lisa.”
David Pott lives near Bishop Auckland in County Durham in northeast England. This former coal mining area produced many fine artists known as the ‘pit painters’. This month a new Mining Art Gallery is opening in Bishop Auckland to display their work. The gallery will also feature some works by mining artists from elsewhere and Entombed – Jesus in the Midst will be displayed on loan from the Museum of Wales. http://www.aucklandcastle.org/events/categories/mining-art-gallery/
For further reading and viewing:
* For an article about the Mining Art Gallery on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-41652524 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-41652524
* For a blog by David Edward Pike, see http://daibach-welldigger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-pentecostal-who-painted-in-black.html
* For an article in The Guardian, see https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/11/museum-of-miners-art-to-open-as-part-of-bishop-auckland-culture-drive
* Bishop Auckland was the centre of the Durham coal mining industry and a few years ago a Christian philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer (who is also a keen art collector), came to Bishop Auckland and is investing in a number of initiatives including two art galleries – the Mining Art Gallery and a Spanish Art Gallery. To find out more about all this, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/rich-list-2017-exclusive-interview-jonathan-ruffer-the-man-regenerating-the-northeast-230w5hg6g
* For a video about Norman Cornish, probably the best known of the local artists in the Durham area, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPnmAhmuNds
ArtWay Visual Meditation October 22, 2017