Graham Sutherland OM

Miner Probing a Drill Hole


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Gouache, wax crayon and ink on paper on hardboard
Support: 560 × 512 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Miner Probing a Drill Hole 1942


Gouache, wax crayon and Indian ink on paper mounted on hardboard
560 x 512 (22 1/16 x 20 1/8)

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Inscribed in white chalk ‘Sutherland’ and incised ‘S’ b.r.

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London, 1942-5
National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (916)
Graham Sutherland, Belfast Museum and Art Gallery and The Whitla Hall, Queen’s University, Belfast, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (7, shown at Belfast Museum and Art Gallery)
Loan to Arts Council of Great Britain, March 1971-May 1982
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (97, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (126, repr.)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (69)

Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.706
Rosalind Thuiller, Graham Sutherland: Inspirations, Guildford 1982, p.52

Sutherland: Disegni di guerra, exh. cat., British Council, Palazzo Reale, Milan 1979, p.90, pl.81, republished as Roberto Tassi, Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.94, pl.81
Michael Tooby, Tate St Ives: An Illustrated Companion, London 1993, p.42

Miner Probing a Drill Hole belongs to a series of paintings based on studies made at Geevor tin mine, near St Just-in-Penwith, Cornwall in June 1942. It was one of three works in the second batch of tin mine pictures that Sutherland submitted to the War Artists Advisory Committee at the end of the year, when it was given the reference number LD2823. The other two works completed at the same time were LD2822, Two Miners Drilling (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)[1] and LD2824, Waiting Miner at Meeting of Tunnels (Wakefield City Art Gallery).[2]

In February 1942, Sutherland had written to Edward Sackville-West, ‘We hope to go to Cardiff for three days (to refresh my memory of the steel works) and then ... we shall try and get down to Cornwall for a few days, where I hope to inspect the tin mines with a view to the possibility of making war pictures’.[3] Whether or not he made it there on that occasion, Sutherland was certainly in Cornwall for three weeks in June making studies at Geevor. Following his established routine, he returned to work up the sketches in his Kent studio. He produced a group of six paintings which were submitted to the WAAC on 2 December. At that time he was still working on the last three - including this one - which, according to Alley, he had begun by 2 November, but which he did not complete until after a further visit to Cornwall between 16 and 28 of that month.[4] As a result of his practice of working in the studio from studies made before the motif, there are usually several intermediary versions of the artist’s war pictures. Miner Probing a Drill Hole is unusual in that the two known related drawings are markedly different from the final painting.[5] In contrast to the abstracted figure draped in undefined clothing, the miner in both studies is rendered more literally and is clearly clad in overalls and wears a helmet and lamp on his head.

The technique is, however, typical of many of Sutherland’s WAAC commissions. The medium weight machine-made paper was mounted on 4mm hardboard with a starch paste, the uneven cutting leaving the board exposed in places along the edges. At bottom right and top left, these margins have been filled in with black crayon since the work was first photographed by the Tate Gallery. On the right hand side the paper has creased where it is detached from the board and there is slight damage to the bottom right hand corner. Part of the figure - the legs, right arm and area beneath the back - was painted on a separate piece of paper which was glued over an earlier attempt at the same passage. This addition was trimmed when in place and incisions can be seen in the main support; it adhered badly to the waxy surface of the painting and had to be re-secured in 1964 and 1985.[6] The various media were applied in a typically complex intermingling of layers. A smoky effect towards the upper corners was achieved with a dilute ink wash while the figure and the tunnel in which he lies is largely of red crayon. The deep blood red colouring of the lower area is made up of a darker red and a black crayon and an ink wash and white gouache were also used. A typical mottled effect was achieved by the wash and paint being thrown off by the wax and by the light dragging of the black crayon across the bottom, for example. The texturing was enhanced by the working up with a sharp instrument of small, fragile peaks of impasto in the crayon and gouache in the lower right hand area. Finally, the main forms and shapes were strengthened with pen and ink drawing. The paint and ink are liable to flake where they are over the wax crayon; cracked areas were consolidated in 1985 but the work’s continued vulnerability prevents it from travelling.

Sutherland recalled that the subject of mines had been suggested by Kenneth Clark, a friend and patron of his and chairman of the WAAC. Except for a brief respite during the First World War, the Cornish tin mining industry had been in decline since the late nineteenth century but, with a lack of foreign imports, several mines were reopened during World War II. In fact, Geevor Mine would remain productive until the 1980s. Clark’s idea was perhaps prompted by its suitability for Sutherland’s painting style - notably the enfolded spaces that characterise such works as Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate Gallery N06190). He might also have been influenced by the fact that, the year before, Henry Moore had followed up the success of his Shelter Drawings with depictions of Yorkshire coal mines. In any case, towards the end of his Cornish trip Sutherland assured Clark that the mine ‘could be hardly more my “line of country”’.[7]

In this he was fortunate, as he had feared that the conditions underground would have prompted an attack of claustrophobia to which he had been prone since getting trapped in a railway engine boiler while serving his apprenticeship in 1920.[8] Thirty years after the war, he recalled his first experiences at Geevor:

The man who first took me round said, ‘Look now, we’ll go down on the bucket’ ... We went down 1,300 feet like a bullet and I didn’t like it at all. I disliked even more the fact that the last floor, the 14th, was not served by a lift. One had to go through a trap-door in the floor and down a ladder ... 100ft of ladder ... Once down and walking through the various tunnels - some a mile along - the problem was to avoid getting lost ... Far from the main shaft the sense of remoteness was tangible and the distances seemed endless. Faintly, far away, was the sound of work on other levels.[9]

Sutherland found the environment thrilling and believed that it could stimulate his finest work. A contemporary letter to Kenneth Clark, which is accompanied by a sketch diagram showing the whereabouts of the subterranean artist,[10] reveals his enthusiasm:

The mines are stupendous & thrilling to a degree which I wouldn’t have believed possible & life below is awe inspiring & one begins to understand the ?fringe of the “height & the depth & the breadth” especially in this case, the depth & the breadth. I hope I can be equal to the occasion. The records I make shall either be easily the best I’ve done or a failure. At all events the problems widen one’s experience enormously ... I go down in the cage at 9.30 & work until one o’clock when I come up & work on my sketches in the afternoon. I won’t attempt to describe the wonders of inspiration below as I am hoping my paintings will do that or attempt to do so.[11]

He went on to tell Clark of a surprise encounter with Ben Nicholson and his circle who had evacuated to Carbis Bay, near St Ives, in 1939: ‘Down here we have contact with Nicholsonia! Our friends with whom we are staying (Head of the Local School of Art) know them. I found Ben N. very agreeable & pleasant & liked Gabo I had met neither before.’[12] Despite the expectation of hostility between the first painter of neo-romanticism and the leading British advocate of abstraction, Sutherland and Nicholson established a mutual respect for each others’ work and a lasting friendship. One might speculate that this re-encounter with the ideals and debates of modernism - then being radically reviewed in discussions between Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Gabo - prompted the renewed stylisation of the tin mine paintings.

The pervasive influence of Henry Moore’s Shelter Drawings is clearly evident in this work. This series of pictures had quickly proved highly successful and, with the help of Clark and the WAAC, were swiftly and widely disseminated. Moore worked on the theme for about a year from September 1940, the first were shown at the National Gallery, London early in 1941 and in New York four months later and were reproduced in Horizon in March and September of that year.[13] With John Piper, Sutherland and Moore shared similar techniques in their works on paper, the atmospheric effect of the wax-resist suiting the subjects with which they engaged. However, Miner Probing a Drill Hole also echoes Moore’s work in the pose and stylised morphology of the figure. Though the few people that had appeared in Sutherland’s steel works pictures - for example Tapping a Blast Furnace (Tate Gallery N05740) - were similarly generalised, this composition is distinguished by the figure’s dominance. The pose - resting on one elbow - is especially redolent of some of Moore’s small lead sculptures - Reclining Figure, 1939 (Victoria and Albert Museum)[14] for example - and recurs in such Shelter Drawings as Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941 (Tate Gallery N05709). As well as the pose, the similarity is in part due to Sutherland’s sculptural treatment of the forms, specifically the definition of volume by means of a series of curving lines that is characteristic of Moore’s drawing technique.

Sutherland lacked confidence in his drawing of the human form, but his borrowing from Moore may simply reflect his desire for a more organic figure style. He seems to have had an interest in the tin miners that he had not felt for the workers at the steel furnace. In his letter to Clark he described them as ‘grand handsome da Vinci types who move easily. I like them very much, & have ideas for one or two portraits (perhaps two combined in one design) in addition to any other work’.[15] The intimacy of the subterranean space, which is emphasised in Miner Probing a Drill Hole, seems to highlight the individual humanity of the miners, while the steel workers are overshadowed by the enormity of the forms and processes around them. Just as Keith Vaughan saw the organicism of Devastation 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse (Tate Gallery N05737) as symbolic of a potential renewal, so these figures were seen to return to the natural world. In the first monograph on Sutherland, Edward Sackville-West claimed that the success of the tin mine paintings lay in their organic quality: ‘The mystique of Nature, which Sutherland has expressed so eloquently in his landscapes, lives again in the inky gloom of these subterranean galleries, and the miners themselves, helmeted and crested with acetylene flame, look as if they were made of the ore they are engaged in extracting ... We are back among the primitive gods.’[16] The suggestion of a pagan culture evokes an idea of ancient Britain which had special resonances during the war and to which Sutherland’s generalised figure style might be seen as appropriate. Such a reassuring naturalisation of the human body may be thought to deliberately echo a similar aspect in Moore’s drawings, and it is likely to have facilitated the popularisation of both artists’ work. Robert Melville saw a morbid symbolism encoded in such paintings as Tin Miner Probing a Drill Hole: ‘in the strange, elegiac studies of tin mines, where the reddened strata of the tunnellings form flattened spirals that seem to be sinking silently into death.’[17] However, the resurgent organicism of Sutherland’s style might be seen as optimistic. In defiance of modern industry and modern warfare, the resilient human body is re-associated with the earth.

Chris Stephens
September 1998

[1] Repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.100, no.104
[2] Repr. Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists: British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London 1983, p.198
[3] Letter to Edward Sackville-West, 15 Feb. 1942, Tate Gallery Archive 926.5
[4] Alley 1982, p.100
[5] Tin Mine: Miner Working in a Slope, 1942, private collection, repr. Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.92, pl.79; Tin Mine: Miner Examining the Roof of a Slope, 1942, private collection, repr. Tassi 1980, p.93, pl.80
[6] Tate Gallery conservation files
[7] Letter to Kenneth Clark, nd [June 1942], Tate Gallery Archive 8812.1.3.3131
[8] Sutherland, letter to Edwin Mullins in Telegraph Magazine, no.359, 10 Sept. 1971, republished in Tassi 1980, p.70
[9] Ibid.
[10] Repr. Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, between pp.64 and 65
[11] Letter to Kenneth Clark, nd [June 1942], Tate Gallery Archive 8812.1.3.3131
[12] Ibid.
[13] Repr. Horizon, vol.3, no.16, March 1941, opposite pp.177 and 192; vol.4, no.21, Sept. 1941, pp.200-206
[14] Repr. Herbert Read, Henry Moore: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1944, pl.102a
[15] Letter to Clark, nd [June 1942]
[16] Edward Sackville-West, Graham Sutherland, Harmondsworth 1943, p.16
[17] Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, [p.15]

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