Josef Herman

In the Miner’s Arms


Not on display

Josef Herman 1911–2000
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 197 × 248 mm
Purchased 1955

Catalogue entry

Josef Herman 1911-2000

In the Miner’s Arms 1954


Pencil, ink and wash on writing paper 198 x 252 (7 ¾ x 10)

Purchased from Roland, Browse & Delbanco (Cleve Fund) 1955

Acquired from the artist

Recent Drawings by Josef Herman; Paintings and Theatre Designs by Kenneth Rowell, Roland, Browse & Delbanco, London, February 1955 (31)
Josef Herman, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, March-April 1956 (136)

Tate Gallery Report 1954-5, London 1955, p.16

Basil Taylor, Josef Herman Drawings, London 1956, pl.30

Josef Herman monumentalised the everyday life of the village of Ystradgynlais in South Wales. Incidents and details were noted in private sketches which were refined in exhibitable studio drawings. A distinction has been made between the sketches, catching ‘visual experiences’, and drawings that developed those experiences in the light of ‘the artist’s knowledge of physical structures, his manual control and that interior image of his theme which belongs to him uniquely’.[1] Although only drawn on writing paper (which has yellowed),[2] In the Miner’s Arms is such a studio drawing made in ink over guiding pencil lines, and finished with washes of grey and a reddish-brown. It shows a scene in the pub of that name which was across the street from the studio that Herman acquired in 1948.[3] The men, in this quintessential male bastion, are designated as miners by the characteristic helmets. This may be artistic licence, as the painter himself has recounted (in relation to his portraits of Mike)[4] how a miner hates to ‘miss his bath after work and not to be able to rid himself of his working clothes’.[5] It is possible that the scene may conflate observations from elsewhere, as Herman touched on a comparable theme in the contemporary painting In the Canteen, 1954 (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum)[6] which presumably shows the catering facilities at the pit itself.

The forms of the composition are drawn quickly and augmented by ink wash. Basil Taylor wrote of the ‘elementary’ quality of Herman’s wash technique, which facilitated ‘luminous areas of tone’ qualified by line with ‘a certain blunt and weighty directness which seems to incise the paper in the way that his volume eat into space.’[7] The control of the wash – modelling the bodies in red-brown and funnelling the light around the converging heads – concentrates the composition on the interaction between the conversing men. Their contrasting poses tell of different types, just as in Three Miners (N06198) of the preceding year. In a way common to many of Herman’s images, the faces assume generalised features and there is little sense of recognisable individuality. The stylisation of the central figure is reminiscent of the African sculptures of which Herman already had a fine collection, and this may suggest a perceived equivalence between these two societies. His position in the mining community remained one of observer and acceptance did not, by his own account, necessarily result in understanding. Five years after leaving Wales, he wrote: ‘I dare say people of the village eventually got used to my presence. They showed little curiosity as to what I was doing. But out of loyalty many of them went to see my exhibition when it was touring Wales. They made no comments to me.’[8] This suggests the respect in which his practice was held.

In the Miner’s Arms was bought soon after it was made. According to an earlier Tate catalogue, and presumably reliant upon information from the artist himself, it was ‘a first idea for a painting on the theme “The Artist and the Pub” for a competition sponsored by the brewers Ind Coope and Allsopp of Burton-on-Trent. The picture was never carried out.’[9] It is not clear whether Herman made any submission to this competition, but a report in the brewers’ company magazine indicates that a prize was won by Zdzislaw Ruskowski,[10] a fellow Polish exile who, like Herman, exhibited with Roland, Browse and Delbanco. Both paid close attention to the hardships of working lives. In the context of domestic and Cold War politics of the 1950s it is notable that Herman’s view of the miners as embodying a heroic humanity was not politically charged in a specific way. Basil Taylor could assert that his theme of ‘Man as Labourer’ was ‘stated without political or sentimental intention and belongs closely to his experience’.[11] Instead the painter attributed a symbolic value to the miner, explaining that ‘it is in the study of their appearance that I find the very force of our human destiny bound to labour’.[12] In a text of 1946, he recognised the pub as a site of the concomitant concerns beyond the physical labour at the coal-face. He wrote of the oratory and argument in the pubs:

The will to carry us closer to the object at the end of their vision keeps passion alive. It is this passion that brings even to the loud unordered life of the local pubs a nostalgic atmosphere half dreamy and half joyful. It is this passion which lights up their aspirations, and makes some of them read through heavy volumes of economics, sociology and philosophy, and prepare themselves for the task of leadership.[13]

In conclusion, this train of argument was shifted to coincide with the artist’s own depictions: ‘It is this traditional passion, this monumental appearance, that broadens the local and incidental, and makes the individual become typical and symbolic.’[14]

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Basil Taylor, Josef Herman Drawings, London 1956, p.6

[2] Tate Gallery conservation files
[3] Interview with the author, 30 September 1998

[4] E.g. Mike, 1945, private collection, reproduced in Robert Heller, Josef Herman: The Work is the Life, exhibition catalogue, Flowers East, London 1998, p.40 (colour)

[5] Juliet Steyn, ‘Josef Herman: Interview’, Aspects: A Journal of Contemporary Art (UK), no.13, winter

1980-1, [p.4]

[6] Reproduced in Heller 1998, p.62 (colour)

[7] Taylor 1956, p.7

[8] Josef Herman, ‘Moods and Opinions’, Painter and Sculptor, vol.3, no.3, summer 1960, p.15
[9] Tate Gallery Report 1954-5, London 1955, p.16

[10] ‘The Artists and the Pub’, Red Hand, November-December 1954, unpaginated, information from Ind Coope & Allsopp Ltd (now Allied Domecq) company archive, Burton-on-Trent

[11] Taylor 1956, p.5

[12] Josef Herman quoted in Taylor 1956, p.5
[13] Josef Herman, Related Twilights: Notes from an Artist’s Diary, London 1975, p.105
[14] Ibid.

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