Hot off the Scanner
Digitisation is an important part of the core work of the collections team at the museum. Digital images of objects are vital for our collections database (helping us find and count objects in stores!), and allow us to share our collections more widely with the public across a variety of digital platforms which include social media. We usually have several digitisation projects on the go across the different collections at the museum. The scanner has been particularly busy for the arts collection recently: we have very nearly scanned all (over 500!) of our pre-1900 watercolour paintings for the Water Colour World website project, which allows the visitor to explore the world before photography (you can see the first uploads of our collection here: https://www.watercolourworld.org/collection/potteries-museum-art-gallery) For many of these projects we are indebted to the meticulous work of our dedicated volunteers, without whom we wouldn’t get half as much done or as quickly! Our volunteer, Mike Ansell has just completed the digitisation of our extensive watercolour painting collection by the local amateur artist, C.W.Brown. The images will be made available shortly on the museum website. In the meantime, it’s over to Mike, our guest blogger, to tell us more about C.W Brown and for a sneak preview of the artist’s work he has scanned.
Charles William Brown (1882 – 1961) – North Staffordshire Artist, Miner and Mine Manager
As a volunteer at the Museum and Art Gallery, I’ve spent the last year or so working on the bequest to the museum by my distant relation, Charles William Brown (above), which includes oil and watercolour paintings, pen and ink drawings, pencil drawings, sketch books, manuscripts and photographs. There are well over 1500 items in total in the archive that CW Brown left to the Museum and Art Gallery upon his death in 1961. Arthur Berry, one of the most renowned of North Staffordshire artists, and who was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery in 2016, described CW Brown’s paintings in his autobiography, A Three And Sevenpence Halfpenny Man (1986) :- “I was astounded by the range of his subject matter. Everything was grist to his mill. He was never short of anything to paint. The match box on the table by his paint box would do for a subject, the paint box itself, even his fingers holding the paint brush. Every ornament in his little street house had been painted with great intensity of observation. Looking through the tea chest was a revelation. I knew that I was looking at the work of an unknown artist of very considerable power, in fact, a great naïve painter. As usual, when I came away from seeing work that had deeply impressed me, I was depressed … The way he drew the simplest domestic object revealed the essence of it. All his shortcomings as an academic painter made his work stronger. What he didn’t know had added to the power of his paintings.” *
Peter Vigurs, a former Keeper of Fine Art at the Museum And Art Gallery, subsequently described some of CW Brown’s work, which he said :- “…. combines a simple, clear delineation of the forms with a characteristic strong colouring that makes the yellow centres of flowers shine like suns.……..Brown often paints as though the earth itself contains a source of light which forces its way out through the grass, bracken and garden flowers.”
CW Brown was born at Robin Hill on Biddulph Moor, emanating, on his father’s side, from a long line of stone masons, who had lived there for generations, and, on his mother’s side, from bargees who worked the canals. Throughout his life, CW Brown retained strong memories of the dialect of the Moor and of its people, even though he moved, with his family, at a young age, to Miles Green near Halmerend, and the Moor remained a favourite subject of his paintings, even into old age. Later in life CW Brown lived with his family in the Etruria district of Stoke-on-Trent.
CW Brown’s father was not a stone mason but a coal miner and CW Brown’s story is that his father had left the mine in the aftermath of an explosion against the orders of the mine manager and, for that reason, had been blacklisted against ever working there again and so had to move away. His father, Fred, obviously thought that staying in the mine was a price not worth paying and he was right because, as he said, he was the last person to emerge alive.
CW Brown’s school career was short, even though he was an outstanding pupil (which he always put down to fear of the cane) and he left school at the age of 12 in 1894 to work on a local farm. He didn’t take to farm work to begin with and, after a short time, ran away to work at the “pit”. But in 1895 there was, again, another mining disaster with heavy casualties and boys of 13 were banned from mine work. So back to farm labouring, where CW Brown learned to plough with heavy horses.
But agricultural labourer’s pay, then as now, was low compared to other occupations so that, once he was old enough, CW Brown once again moved back to work in the coal mines. His mining career was very long starting at age 12 in 1894 up to his retirement in December 1948 – and even after that he returned briefly, until ill health forced him to leave for good – so that he could then enjoy domestic life and, particularly, his life-long hobby of painting. As part of his archive CW Brown has left the Museum and Art Gallery with a series of writings which describe not only his love of art and descriptions of the way he paints and draws, but also about his career in mining, which starts in the late 19th century when the “butty” system of labour was in force, right up to the nationalisation of the coal mines in the 1940s. He has some forceful things to say about the growth and strength of trade unionism, but was less complimentary about mine owners and working conditions.
Whilst the bulk of CW Brown’s career was spent in North Staffordshire his working life also took him to Somerset and the Wyre Forest. He obviously had a fondness of, and talent for, painting and drawing from an early age that he put to good use in preparing engineering drawings for the introduction of machines and ways of working at the mines.
CW Brown had a range of colliery jobs throughout his career, from loader to hewer, shot firer, under manager and eventually manager, passing his First Class certificate, with classes at the Stoke-on-Trent Technical College and examinations via the University of Birmingham, by 1920. He must have been a very proud man when he took up his first mine manager’s job at Newbury Colliery, Coleford, Somerset and could annotate his painting as “CWB 1924 MANAGER”.
CW Brown’s paintings range widely in subject matter from depictions of mines in the early 20th century through local scenes and industry in the Potteries, hints of war, holidays in Scotland, Devon or Blackpool, and social gatherings to flowers in vases and domestic household items or “just” designs.
He was successful in competitions ranging from entries in the “Science and Art of Mining” to a winning design for the Josiah Wedgwood Bicentenary Exhibition in 1930, even though his chosen “nom-de-plume” was “Numbskull”!
CW Brown was entirely self-taught as well as having great enthusiasm and a natural talent – maybe derived from his mother’s heritage of the folk art of canal narrow boats?…. although that is a hypothesis that cannot be proven. Some of his writings pass on his method and way of working such as “In The Drawing Of A Picture”. He was particularly keen to demonstrate how he dealt with perspective.
A selection of CW Brown’s oil paintings are viewable on the ArtUK web site, via this link :-https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/actor:brown-charles-william-18821961/page/2 I understand that CW Brown started experimenting with oils towards the end of his life and used a varnish which appears to make these paintings slightly yellowish, in stark contrast to the brightness of his watercolours (as shown above). A booklet “C.W. Brown The Potteries Primitive”, written by Peter Vigurs, former keeper of Fine Art, was produced by the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, some decades ago, after the death of CW Brown, as an introduction to the collection of paintings and drawings bequeathed by the artist. Perhaps it should be emphasised that CW Brown would have quibbled vigorously with its title – he did not see himself as a primitive nor a naive painter. Maybe you should judge? Personally, from the point of view of a layperson with no background in art, I’m highly impressed, first of all, with the technical expertise of his working drawings such as “4 Belts Head Wrightson and Co Ltd Stockton on Tees”, and this is one of many such drawings in the collection. He obviously has a detailed first-hand knowledge of how things work, or could work, both practically and economically, from long experience and observation during his career in the mines. Those same qualities of experience and observation are also important factors in portraying industrial and mining scenes (particularly work underground) as well as everyday life in the Potteries and beyond. They illustrate and capture a historic record of what it actually felt like in Stoke on Trent in the first half of the 20th Century when the pot banks and mines were in full swing and the city was bustling. The working life of the mining and pottery industries could be rugged and hard, but with excellent camaraderie and a common bond. In “Pot Paintresses” CW Brown has portrayed who he must have seen as a group of kindred spirits, where exceptionally skilful women are putting the finishing flourishes to the products that have made the Potteries famous throughout the world. Possibly, CW Brown would have benefitted from attending life classes in art, but to my mind the figures in “A Dance” have character and could be recognised out and about, in the streets of Hanley or Burslem, as real people with real lives. CW Brown, it seems, hasn’t set out to produce portrait likenesses and his faces are certainly not often joyful or jolly but he has created distinctive personalities. Everything and anything was potential material for his paintings, from the smallest and least significant of domestic objects, through the joys of the natural world and majestic holiday scenery, to the contrast of the world of work in heavy industry. All must have brightened his life tremendously. He was capable of undertaking minute observation of everything from a plant to a pulley. He attempted to capture the essential spirit of his subject and his own interpretation, rather than a photographic likeness, which I realise, for the artist, is what it’s all about. What do you think of CW Brown’s work? Your comments are very welcome. Written By: Michael Ansell – Volunteer
- Excerpt from Arthur Berry, A Three And Sevenpence Halfpenny Man (published by Kermase Editions, 1986)