Laurence Edwards

A Rich Seam

 

2 October – 13 November

PREVIEW: Friday 1 October, online from 6pm, at the gallery 6:30 – 8:30pm  Book tickets

 

Modern geologists refer to the stratigraphic archive of the Earth as ‘the rock record’; nineteenth-century geologists spoke of it as ‘The Great Stone-Book’. In this unique project, Laurence Edwards has created a new kind of stone book: an extraordinary double-archive – told in bronze and told in story – of a generation and a community that is now close to disappearing.     
Robert Macfarlane (2019)

In 2018 the sculptor Laurence Edwards was commissioned by Doncaster Council, with money raised through a crowd funding campaign, for a sculpture commemorating the mining history of Doncaster.

For several months Laurence Edwards toured the pubs, clubs and community halls of the Doncaster region, speaking to miners and mining families in the town and its surrounding villages. Then he began a remarkable process, positioned somewhere between oral history and performance art. He would meet up to three miners a day, and with each person would sit for two hours, modelling their heads in buttery yellow wax, while talking with them and drawing out their stories. Each of these conversations was recorded, resulting in a film that chronicles the emergence of a portrait in real time as well as the life story of a miner.

Earlier this year, A Rich Seam was installed next to the Frenchgate centre in the town centre. The figure of a ‘listening miner’ stands between two 20 tonne pieces of York Stone, quarried in Huddersfield, and bronze faces of individual miners sit in hand made crevices, like a seam or ‘book of coal’ carved into the giant rock.

On the day of the public opening in Doncaster an exhibition of the bronze portraits will open at Messums Yorkshire.

A Mining Statue for Doncaster: Doncaster Council

A Rich Seam: Heritage Doncaster

 

Laurence Edwards is renowned for the visceral nature of his sculptures, which artfully combine the figure with landscape, presenting us with characters that are inextricably linked to the earth.

For A Rich Seam, he has adapted his approach in order to fully explore subjects that are embedded both in the local community and its geography. On the surface, in sculpting the heads of 40 Doncaster miners in miniature, he has produced some of his most literal portrait work. Each of the heads, created in wax from an initial two-hour long live ‘consultation’, is an accurate likeness of the individual sitter: a feat in itself given the time constraints of the project.

Despite being a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Sculptors, he admits it’s been a long while since he’s had the opportunity to demonstrate the very traditional skill of live modelling. ‘I’ve never had that chance to push it and find a contemporary setting for it: to find a place for it to have a voice,’ he says. ‘It’s been a wonderful way of finding that sculpture can be a tool for social engagement. It’s become a vehicle for learning and communicating with people – and one that I never thought would have ever existed.’

Edwards describes the initial two-hour consultations – in which he was not only timed but filmed producing his likenesses, whilst simultaneously interviewing his subjects about their lives – as a leap of faith. ‘It’s a jump into the unknown. And it’s so damn quick, there’s no time for correction, it’s about getting the information down as fast as possible and just hoping that it works. There’s no safety net: it’s just a very, very fast, scary ride. And in that sense I’m yielding or submitting to a process that I have to trust will come good. So you’ll get an hour in and the guy behind the camera will say, “An hour’s up” and you think, “I’m nowhere near! There’s nothing here…” and you get more and more focused until the last ten minutes when the interview often goes very quiet and you really have to dig out and dig deep to get the information in – something that will make this face resemble the subject – you really have to strip it down to the bare minimum and just get the essential parts of it – “What is this head about?” You realise what a luxury you have in other ways of making. This is just an absolute submission to a period of time and a mission that is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It very much relates to yielding to process and letting nature take its course: it’s a different kind of format. It’s very scary….’

Despite the formality of public art of this kind (where it is literally ‘set in stone’ for posterity), Edwards inevitably delves deeper to fully explore the nuances in his work. ‘This project was really about their story, and the head is a vehicle towards that, rather than just a thing in itself,’ he explains. ‘It’s quite a seismic shift for me to think about these people’s stories first and foremost rather than just me making sculpture – but enjoying the fact that I get a great experience out of it as well myself.’

Historically, a project such as this – a public sculpture celebrating and commemorating people who have contributed significantly to the community – would conform to certain norms – that romanticised, heroic statue on a pedestal, an idealised version of reality. But this project offers a very different paradigm: the everyday as the heroic, depicting and celebrating the real people of Doncaster with real stories and real faces…

‘Almost by accident, it’s tapped into this thread of public art now,’ agrees Edwards. ‘Public art is no longer the generals on horseback in Trafalgar Square, it’s more about people’s social histories. So, I chimed with the contemporary way that public art is evolving. It’s very timely. And I’m very pleased about that, to be working within a social history context.’

The work features each of the 40 portraits, cast in bronze and set within small niches in a section of local rock, as though they were a seam of coal. ‘You have these 40 heads in these niches – they’re given this extraordinary weight,’ says Edwards. ‘I was worried that they would feel almost like broaches set in the stone, but they do inhabit this rock, it’s almost as if their bodies are inside it, which is fascinating. And the rock does have fossils in it and bits of coal. So there’s this lovely organic connection between humans and rock and the beginnings of mining.’

Each of the films made during the portrait session can be viewed on the Doncaster Heritage website and can be digitally accessed at each head by scanning a QR code with your phone. Thus the viewer can witness first-hand the story of the person they are looking at, turning the piece into a living digital archive.

Set into the paving around the sculpture is a glossary of words and mining terms particular not only to Doncaster but to each individual pit. ‘So you walk over the language as you approach the sculpture, meet the miners – the users of the language – and listen to and watch them on your phone.’

Edwards believes he convinced the council to give him the commission because of his enthusiasm for engaging in the consultation process itself – in focusing the work on the people themselves and letting them lead and shape the work. ‘They asked what I was going to make and I said, “Do you know what, I don’t know! Because I want to talk to the people before I decide. So you’re not going to get a miner with a pickaxe on his shoulder standing on a column. But you’re going to get something interesting, I hope.” So it wasn’t just the miners that were wary of me, it was also the mayor, the council – everyone! I was there as one guy sticking his neck out. So I really went to town on the consultation.’

Having persuaded the powers that be (Edwards remarks how one councilor in particular backed his vision, saying, ‘Look this guy is really going to go places with this, we should buy into him’), he then found himself touring the mining clubs of Doncaster with his slide projector. ‘Often unannounced as usual,’ he interjects. ‘Usually in a pub with a load of blokes watching Doncaster vs Rotherham on the TV, and the barman going, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’ve never heard of you, what do you mean? What are you doing here?” And I’d end up putting the projector on a billiard table and projecting onto the dartboard, standing under a TV screen and saying, “My name’s Laurence, I’m a sculptor from Suffolk and I’ve come to make a sculpture about you…”’

Many awkward silences later (and several return visits, in which he brought them up to date by showing the sketches he had developed in the meantime, gauging their responses and reactions), Edwards finally hit upon his idea.
It was, he admits, partly spurred by his son, who was reading a book on Rodin and noticed the parallels between his father’s project and the great sculptor’s Burghers of Calais series, which focused on the physiognomy of the people of Calais.

‘He said, “Why don’t you do that for the people of Doncaster?” And I thought, “That’s a bloody good idea!” So I went back to the council and I said, “Do you know what, I think I should talk to these miners, but more intimately, and do portraits of them.” And before I knew it there was a bloody press conference…! Suddenly it was in the papers and I was committed.’

Setting up in Doncaster College with film students recording him as he sat opposite his subjects for two-hour sessions, interviewing them at the same time, Edwards found that his hands ‘took over’ as he became engrossed in the stories he was told. ‘My hands were like they were at a typewriter, going round the block as I was listening to these stories,’ he says. ‘It became so engaging that the heads just evolved in my hands. It was almost a subconscious act. So it was an incredible moment of realisation for me. And the films and the stories that evolved were so powerful that it became a package.’

The intimacy of the process meant the atmosphere quickly became a warm and respectful one. ‘You’re given permission to study someone’s face for two hours – there’s not many moments in life where you get that chance, so you become very intimate very quickly, and they actually trust you. A trust soon builds. They watch how your hands are working and see that you’re not just a sap. You’re a guy who’s got a skill – and they really do appreciate that skill. So it actually breaks down a lot of barriers. It’s great to be able to celebrate individual stories, they really loved the idea of being celebrated and in a way, to mark those stories in bronze and that their faces will be lasting for a long time in bronze. And they love having a moment to tell their story, so it’s a very intimate and affectionate relationship.’

The sense of allowing his hands to take over and be guided by the situation is typical of Edwards’ methodology. A huge fan of the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), who spoke of letting the sculpture take control and evolve on its own terms, Edwards makes a feature out of what would normally be called ‘casting errors’ – the unforeseen strands, marks and detritus that are usually removed in the final process.‘Rosso is one of my heroes, with this idea that the work leads the way, and that there is this dialogue of materials and the artist steers a course through it. That’s definitely my modus operandi.’

While followers of Edwards’ work might see this project as something of a departure for him, with its emphasis on ‘straight’ portraiture, dig a little deeper and the seams at the core of his work begin to expose themselves. Rather, one should perhaps see this work as a natural progression in his fascination with how the human and natural worlds intertwine. ‘Very much so. It’s definitely got that connection. And the miners’ stories are very much stories of the underworld. It’s the world beneath our feet, literally, but also the images they portray and the life they describe is definitely a dark, chambered, hard, grueling, dangerous, lethal, dirty world. I think the heads are often an attempt to reflect that. The more I do, the better I get, finding these asymmetries in the faces, so they become almost pieces of nature in themselves. And I love the idea of setting them back in the rock – we’ve been very particular about the type of rock we’re using, which is a York stone from the area, and it is actually the rock that contains the coal. This is the bedrock that the coal is set within, and which they excavate through and from. So it’s a nice link back to that underground world.’

What’s more, by displaying the final work in a central, public position in Doncaster high street, the miners are also presented as the heart of the community – indeed the reason why many of these communities exist… ‘Exactly, I mean there are towns built around mines, so they are built around bringing the underground up above the ground. They were about bringing the bowels of the earth to the surface and then using it. They’re like ant nests, people going down and bringing stuff out. And these communities are built around that digging, basically.’

This awareness of being part of the geology itself struck a chord with Edwards. But the sense of these men being one with the landscape was also tempered by a very different sense of earthiness in their character. These are, let’s not forget, both Yorkshiremen and miners – people whose trust is hard won, meaning it is all the more valued.

‘Very much so,’ agrees Edwards. ‘Not only were they hesitant, even cynical perhaps. Cynical not just of me, but of the whole project and the motives for doing it. But they’re also very protective and proud. And they didn’t want some “oik from down south” coming up and telling them what to do, basically!’

The inclusion of this final figure was one that perfectly demonstrates Edwards’ openness to engaging with dissenting voices and his belief that better work can emerge from having one’s ideas challenged.

‘When I first presented the idea of a load of heads in a big block to the mayor, she said, “Where’s the miner?” And I replied, “Well you’ve got 40!” But she said, “No I want a real one, you know, standing there.” And I thought, “Oh God, now I’ve got to bloody well make a miner as well, after all this time”. But she was right – it was absolutely necessary. So I split the blocks and divided the heads between the two, and put this miner in the middle of them, in this shaft, so he’s listening… The miners all talked about this idea of “pit sense” – how, at the end of a shift, they listened to the geology settling and how scary it could be,’ says Edwards. ‘And do you know what, it was a better idea, so you take it on board. It’s quite humbling when you realise other people understand – I learned a lot through that process.’

Part of that process has meant accepting that the final piece belongs to the public, too. ‘You have a responsibility,’ he admits. ‘The genius of the public artist, I’ve realised, is to make personal a very public relationship. You’ve really got to make their business yours as well. And that takes a lot of time. I think it’s quite unusual to have had these four years, to absorb their world and try and hold it, and make it yours as well.’

So much for the reminiscing – the practicalities of swinging 25-tonne stone blocks (sourced from Johnsons Wellfield quarry, Huddersfield) were nerve-wracking in their own right for Edwards. ‘You’re never sure how it will look until it’s in situ. But it looks great. It’s lovely to see the stone echoed in the buildings – the town is made of York stone. It’s nice to see it in its natural state, set among all the facades of the town. They’ve really respected it and celebrated it. They completely redesigned the street and repaved it in York stone, re-lit it. They’ve really gone to town. And it’s been liked! People are leaving flowers there, in the hands of the miner and so on. I’ve got a really nice feeling about it.’

The process of selecting the stone also demanded a degree of ‘letting go’, as Edwards explains: ‘We had to wait for the geology of the quarry – for the stone to literally fall out of the wall. With the deadline looming, you’re relying on nature to gift you these blocks! And then you see them lying on the ground and they’re all scarred by machinery, and chipped and charred and broken up, and you think, “How the hell is this going to work?” So that was fascinating. One of my “voices” if you like in my art is our relationship with nature, and I feel I found a different route in through this – an equal way in which I could express my connection with land. And I think with the stone too – that weight is there, along with the weight of pressure and expectation from the public. It literally adds gravity to the whole thing.’

Even the casting process brought Edwards’ thoughts back to our relationship with the stone, since bronze was first discovered when copper ore oozed out of the rock when Bronze Age man lit fires in caves. ‘It’s not just about understanding the manufacturing side, it’s about understanding the metal and its history. Nearly every civilization that has existed for the last 4,000 years has had a relationship with this metal. More often than not they have expressed that relationship through some form of human figure. I’ve always felt that incredibly compelling – that the consciousness of a civilisation is expressed through these two media. And to enter into that narrative is extraordinary – it’s a big ask! Every time you do a bronze pour, you see something that’s liquid turn solid in a second. And you think, my God, that will be solid now for aeons – which is awe-inspiring and scary and embarrassing in a sense. There’s a responsibility and I become quite philosophical. This lovely language appears from people’s relationship with stone and rock: with nature.’

Looking at the work now, Edwards’ initial trepidation has been replaced by a sense of satisfaction – not simply with the sculpture itself, but also with how the community has welcomed Edwards with an unexpected warmth. ‘I was stunned at the positivity,’ he says. ‘There were times when I thought it would be impossible to get an idea that would satisfy all parts of this incredibly proud community – worse than Brexit! But the miners were very supportive, and the feedback from visitors has been emotional in some cases. I think we are tapping into something, creating a new community around the rock ’

“In that pleasant district of merry England, which is watered by the River Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.”

The above quote was written by Sir Walter Scott and published in his novel Ivanhoe in 1820. However, unbeknown to Sir Walter Scott, buried beneath his ‘beautiful hills and valleys’ lay a rich seam of coal, which was destined to change the face of the Yorkshire town of Doncaster and its surrounding villages – a local coal mining industry whose dramatic rise at the start of the 20th Century and an equally dramatic contraction at the end of it, came to dominate the town for around 100 years.This left a legacy equal to the ‘klondikes’ of the Canadian Gold Rush and a town now surrounded by numerous former coal mining communities lacking their coal mines.

Originally founded by the Romans around AD71as Danum, the town of Doncaster grew in importance from its location where the Great North Road bridges the River Don. Substantial growth followed during the medieval period and Doncaster became an important market town.With the establishment of horse racing on theTown Moor in 1595, the town became a ‘plaything’ of Kings and Queens and the numerous landed gentry who dominated the surrounding agricultural district with its ‘estate’ villages.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, coal mining had started encroaching into the Doncaster area from the west, where the seams are at a shallower depth and the coal more easily extracted. In 1867, Denaby Main Colliery, around eight miles to the west of Doncaster opened.Twenty-one years later, the Denaby Main Colliery Company secured the lease of coal beneath the seat of Dame Georgina Watson-Copley of Sprotbrough Hall, whose land extended all the way from Denaby to the town itself, establishing Cadeby Colliery. Around the same time, the Ordnance Survey’s Geological Survey division commissioned the drilling of a borehole at South Carr near Haxey, some ten miles to the east of Doncaster.This borehole intercepted a thick deposit of coal named the Barnsley Coal Seam at a depth of over 1,000 yards, the same coal seam that was being successfully mined at Denaby 18 miles away to the west at a depth of only 450 yards. Suddenly a huge new virgin coalfield had been proven to exist across a width of 18 miles with the town of Doncaster at its centre; the Barnsley Coal Seam, a rich seam indeed, awaited extraction.

However, despite the excitement of proving the existence of this vast new coalfield
– known as a concealed coalfield as the coal bearing strata are deeply buried or concealed from the surface beneath layers of younger rocks – its exploitation would take a few years to gain momentum. Subsequent boreholes confirmed the further extent of the coalfield, but it would require several difficulties to be overcome before operations could commence.The coal mining industry has often moved in phases of boom and bust, matching the economic needs of the country at the time. However, the British Empire was increasingly becoming dependent upon coal, fuelling its furnaces of industry, its energy requirements, its transport networks and its domestic use in nearly every home. Coal, formed from the burial and intense compression of peat deposits laid down in humid swamps during the Carboniferous Period some 320 million years ago, was in ever increasing demand.

o meet this need, mining industrialists turned their attention to the new Doncaster Coalfield where vast wealth lay buried beneath the town. Coal mining would be required at a scale never seen before in the country and improvements in mining technology had enabled the construction of larger diameter shafts and the ventilation of extensive underground workings at great depths. Once finance was in place, the Doncaster area was ready to be exploited.

Many of the industrialists who controlled most of the newly formed private colliery companies were connected to the Liberal Party. Lord Aberconway, Robert Armitage, Sir Arthur Markham and Sir Tudor Walters were all Liberal MPs.The local and more established landed gentry could possibly frown upon these newcomers as being ‘new money’, but they were happy to lease them the coal, as royalties, rentals and land sales would form a significant contribution to estate incomes. Raising investment from their own wealth created in older coalfields and the iron and steel industries of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire as well as the issuing of shares and debentures to the public and by teaming up in partnerships to share the risk, the colliery magnates quickly sought to establish new pits in the Doncaster region.

Between 1905-1926 the Doncaster Coalfield was carved up into units of around 10,000 acres, each the centre of a proposed colliery intended to employ up to
4,000 men working to extract around 1,000,000 tons of coal a year to make a profit. With little local pre-existing housing, a new mining community would be required toaccommodate the new workforce. Once the first Doncaster pit was established at Brodsworth in 1907, a klondike followed, with pits striking the Barnsley Coal Seam at Bentley in 1908; Askern, Bullcroft and Edlington – all in 1911; Maltby in 1912; Rossington in 1915; Hatfield in 1916; Armthorpe in 1924; and Thorne in 1926 – the last after an extremely difficult shaft sinking process taking 17 years to reach coal. If it had not been for the onset of the Great Depression, additional coal mines would have been opened at Barnby Dun, Blaxton, Belton, Finningley, Lindholme and South Carr.

However, the most important aspect was the recruiting of a workforce and the construction of new colliery communities by the colliery companies themselves, in a rural district of small villages with little local availability of labour.This was all set against a backdrop of escalating pressures to provide a higher standard of housing and the increasing influence of the Garden City Movement. (Interestingly, Sir Tudor Walters, involved with the construction of several Doncaster mining communities, would be commissioned by the Government to write the 1918 Tudor Walters Report, which resulted in the 1919 Addison Act being largely responsible for establishing the provision of council housing throughout the country).

The first Doncaster colliery community, the company town of Denaby Main built for Denaby Main Colliery and later enlarged with the sinking of nearby Cadeby Main Colliery, had attracted criticism for its poor standard of housing. In 1899, the journal The Christian Budget described Denaby Main as “the worst village in England …. a hell uponEarth.”The new pits of the Doncaster Coalfield were determined not to repeat these earlier mistakes.

Architects Percy Houfton built Woodlands Model Village for Brodsworth Colliery; Benjamin Marson and Sir Tudor Walters were active at Carcroft; and Maurice Deacon and Barry Parker were instrumental in constructing the circular layout at New Rossington. In the 1920s, Lord Aberconway and Sir Tudor Walters established the Industrial Housing Association, which built 12,000 houses at pit villages both locally and nationally, and the Housing Corporation of Great Britain was commissioned to construct the mining settlements at Dunscroft and Moorends.

Once coal had been struck, it was imperative to rapidly recruit a workforce to expand production at the pit.There was little availability of local labour, although local farmers were complaining that farm hands were leaving their employment to seek higher wages at the collieries. A recent study by Professor Melvyn Jones of 38 households listed in the 1911 Census at Woodlands Model Village gives an indication of the migration of labour to the Doncaster area.The total population of the 38 households was 444 as many houses included lodgers and boarders. Amongst the 160 men and boys from these 38

households who worked at Brodsworth Main Colliery, 51 were from Derbyshire, 38 from Nottinghamshire and only 19 from South Yorkshire. In addition, 14 men and boys had been born in the Staffordshire town of Longton whilst there were smaller numbers from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and even one from the Isle of Wight! The early miningcommunities of the Doncaster Coalfield must have contained a cosmopolitan multitude of accents reflecting this migration of families from across the British Isles. It is interesting to note some of the local nick names for certain areas that developed in the 1920s – for example ‘Little Wigan’ at New Rossington reflecting the migration of people from the Lancashire town, and ‘China Town’ in Maltby resulting from the influx of families from the china porcelain districts of the Staffordshire pottery towns.

There were later waves of migration in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, particularly following the depression in the ship building industry, resulting in an influx of people from Scotland, Geordies from Newcastle and men from Liverpool and Hull. From 1943- 1948, many Bevin Boys served in the Doncaster pits.These were conscripts from the British Army under a programme instigated by Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service, where 10% of army recruits were conscripted into the mining industry to assist with increasing production. Following the end of the Second World War
and the nationalisation of the industry, the National Coal Board recruited Displaced Persons of Central European Origin and many men from Poland andYugoslavia moved to Doncaster. Many of the new recruits were housed in hastily built encampments of Nissan Huts; a large such settlement was built at Intake.

During the 1950s and 1960s further waves of migration affected the Doncaster mining communities.The National Coal Board encouraged families to move from older coal mining districts where coal reserves were becoming exhausted. Enticed by the proposed provision of a newly constructed house built by the local authority or through the National Coal Board’s Coal Industry Housing Association, many men from the North-East and Scotland moved to these new housing estates – often colloquially referred to as ‘Jock Estates’, reflecting the Scottish origin of their first inhabitants.

As coal mining began to decline in other areas, the Doncaster Coalfield was still booming and the National Coal Board constructed Coal House as a home for its divisional headquarters, the (now demolished) building being the tallest office block in the town. Coal from the Doncaster pits was now finding new markets. As domestic, transport and local industrial use declined, the Central Electricity Generating Board undertook the construction of a series of large power stations in the River Aire and River Trent valleys, which became major customers for Doncaster coal.

However, the national decline in coal use was now beginning to affect the Doncaster Coalfield.An early casualty had been the 1955 closure ofThorne Colliery due to flooding issues, and Denaby and Bullcroft Collieries closed in 1968.The year-long Miners’ Strike and what was seen by some as a personal vendetta against the industry by the Thatcher government of the 1980s further hastened the decline of the industry. Yorkshire Main closed in 1985, Cadeby in 1987, Brodsworth in 1990, Askern in 1992 and Bentley in 1993.The remainder of British Coal’s assets were privatised in 1994 and the surviving Doncaster pits returned to private ownership for a second time.They continued in production for a few more years, but with markets declining due to the switching to greener sources of energy, change came to Markham Main in 1996, the rebuilt and permanently mothballed pit at Thorne was demolished in 2004, Rossington in 2006, Maltby in 2013 and finally Hatfield in 2015 – 110 years after Charles Thellusson of Brodsworth Hall had cut the first sod of turf at Brodsworth Main Colliery marking the initial exploitation of the concealed coalfield of Doncaster.

Doncaster’s mining communities no longer served active collieries and the former pit sites and spoil heaps became derelict wastelands, now under a variety of ownerships. Many of the pit villages were blighted by relatively high levels of deprivation and unemployment, particularly in the late 1980s, the 1990s and early 2000s and there was some limited demolition of colliery housing. However, the English Partnerships Coalfield Regeneration Programme was established in 1997 to undertake land reclamation and the redevelopment of 56 colliery sites, including several in the Doncaster area.Together with local authorities and other regeneration agencies, these sites have seen their landscapes transformed into a variety of new uses.

Those dark and forbidding spoil heaps have been grassed over and landscaped and now have alternative uses; as Community Woodlands at Brodsworth, Bentley and Edlington, whilst Askern now hosts a field of solar energy generating panels.The tip atThorne Colliery was removed for use in motorway construction in the 1970s and the area now adjoins the Humberhead Peatlands National Nature Reserve.The colliery sites themselves have also formed ideal locations for new housing (for example atArmthorpe, Edlington and Askern) or for new industrial development, in some cases facilitated by new link roads to the motorway network as at Hatfield and Rossington.

Despite the removal of most of the colliery buildings and the change in landscape
use, the Doncaster mining communities wished to honour their mining heritage.The former SouthYorkshire County Council constructed the first memorials at Bullcroft
and Denaby and other monuments were subsequently created at most of the other pit villages. However, there was no central memorial in Doncaster itself. Despite once being circled by a series of mining communities all looking towards the town, Doncaster itself was often primarily known as a railway or horse racing town.

sites themselves have also formed ideal locations for new housing (for example at Armthorpe, Edlington and Askern) or for new industrial development, in some casesfacilitated by new link roads to the motorway network as at Hatfield and Rossington.

Despite the removal of most of the colliery buildings and the change in landscape
use, the Doncaster mining communities wished to honour their mining heritage.The former SouthYorkshire County Council constructed the first memorials at Bullcroft
and Denaby and other monuments were subsequently created at most of the other pit villages. However, there was no central memorial in Doncaster itself. Despite once being circled by a series of mining communities all looking towards the town, Doncaster itself was often primarily known as a railway or horse racing town.

In 2016, Doncaster Council commissioned Laurence Edwards to design a new memorial to commemorate the town’s mining heritage. In 2018, a Spacehive internet crowdfunding campaign raised £130,000 to fund the project and Laurence Edwards visited the area to capture the likeness of local miners and their families in a series of sculptures. A half scale model was presented to the public in an empty retail unit in the Frenchgate Shopping Centre to gauge opinion and feedback.This ultimately led to the 2021 unveiling of ‘A Rich Seam’ in a prominent position on Printing Office Street, a fitting tribute to all those that have worked at the Doncaster collieries and lived in its mining communities and whose efforts dramatically enhanced the economic success of the country, a contribution of which the town can be immensely proud.The legacy of the Doncaster Coalfield is now reflected in its memorials, former mining communities and most importantly in its people.

I grew up in a coal-mining country. Collieries were the highest structures around: the headstocks with their spinning wheels, the non-stop chunters of the winding engines. Power station cooling-towers made their own weather. Nodding donkeys pumped drifts dry. Slagheaps leaked black streams, tracked with tyre-marks. I had a strong sense as a child of knowing only one storey of the landscape, walking the surface above an invisible underworld of tunnels and shafts that ran for thousands of miles.

My father, a respiratory physician, treated miners with industrial diseases, and one of my childhood friends was a former miner called Peter Smith. Peter had worked below ground for thirty years and he was the happiest person I knew. He was a miraculous whistler: he could do two-tone whistling, bird-songs, hymns. He taught me how to play golf and how to gamble. When I asked him why he whistled so much, he said it was because now he got to spend his days above ground. He became a champion bowls player later in his life, walking lovingly alongside his gleaming wooden bowls as they curled towards the jack, urging them on or slowing them down with gentle murmurs, until their last lean into stillness.

Peter had an extraordinary face; I can see it very clearly now in my mind’s eye –– above all the great wide mouth that seamed it sideways, smilingly, almost all of the time. And from that wide mouth came, sometimes, stories about the darkness in which he had worked for three decades; the men – and women – who’d been alongside him in the tunnels and lifts, the danger and the accidents, but also the sense of community and the pride he took in his work. Though Peter was ecstatic no longer to be mining, I never heard a single word of complaint or self-pity from him.

I remembered Peter instantly, across the space of a quarter-century or more, when Laurence Edwards arrived at my room in Cambridge one day early in 2019. ‘I’ve brought a bagful of heads with me’, he announced. Of course you have, Laurence. Each head was wrapped in cloth. Laurence unwrapped and then passed them to me one by one. They were made of yellow wax, but I cradled them as if they were delicate china, for taking the head of a stranger in my hands felt like a great responsibility. As I handled them –– amazed once again at Laurence’s sheer, absurd talent as a sculptor –– he described to me their origins in a commission to commemorate and celebrate the miners and mining history of Doncaster.

For several months Laurence toured the pubs, clubs and community halls of the Doncaster region, speaking to miners and mining families in the city and its villages. Then he began a remarkable process, positioned somewhere between oral history and performance art. He would meet up to three mine-workers a day, and with each person would sit for two hours, modelling their heads in buttery yellow wax, while talking with them and drawing out their stories. Each of these conversations was recorded, and each ‘sitting’ resulted in the model of a head which went on to be cast in bronze by means of the lost wax method.

Initially Laurence thought that sculpting while talking would be impossible, resulting in a disabling cognitive dissonance. But to his surprise, he found that – in his words – ‘as I listened, I realised that my hands continued to work, like fingers at a type-writer going about their business almost independently of me’.  Somehow, the stories he was being told about life and death underground – often harrowing, sometimes funny or surreal – became part of the means by which the heads of the speakers emerged and evolved in Laurence’s hands. One miner told him how they would race pit ponies underground in the darkness. A pit nurse spoke of how she had once had to leave a mine with her own hands bandaged tightly to the skull of an injured miner, to prevent potentially fatal bleeding.

Over the weeks of modelling work, the headcount mounted, and so did the tales and conversations. Sculpting and story-telling melted into one another. The intimacy of having the likeness of one’s head moulded by a stranger seems to have encouraged an openness in the miners. Laurence’s first genius is as a sculptor, but he is also an attentive talker and listener; one instinctively trusts him and feels willing to share. This listening and sharing happened again and again in Doncaster; by the end of his time there, Laurence had sculpted and spoken with around forty people.

The final phase of the project was to devise a means of framing and re-telling both the heads and their voices. Laurence decided to set the cast bronze heads in niches cut into vast blocks of stone, echoing the geological spaces in which the miners had laboured for so long. Placed in those niches, the heads look somehow both protected and constrained. They seem to be speaking for and of the Earth; deep-time voices, carrying stories from the underworld. There is something mythic, something saintly, and something also very respectfully ordinary about this final housing of the heads; these ‘faces in the rock’, as Laurence calls them.

Modern geologists refer to the stratigraphic archive of the Earth as ‘the rock record’; nineteenth-century geologists spoke of it as ‘The Great Stone-Book’. In this unique project, Laurence Edwards has created a new kind of stone book: an extraordinary double-archive – told in bronze and told in story – of a generation and a community that is now close to disappearing.

 

 

The Portraits


Laurence’s Blog


The Sittings


Filmed by Doncaster College

Watch the full series

 

 

 

The Studio


The Listening Miner


The Drawing Board


Working in the Quarry


Installation on Printing Office Street