There is a fascinating exhibition of paintings that are windows into an almost lost world of heavy industry and manufacturing in the north east on show at the Heritage Gallery, Cargo Fleet. The once mighty shipyards of the great rivers of the region are brought back into work by artist Graham Hodgson but he does not gloss over any of the noise, dirt, grime or danger.
A former Coldstream Guard and Archaeological Illustrator, Graham was born into a shipbuilding family and community. He has utilised the skills developed from a Sunderland University BA Honours Illustration Art and Design to explore the heritage of his own working community.
Graham’s passion for his heritage and strong sense for his history is evident in every brush stroke. His paintings take a vantage point at the front line of the work face inside the shipyards.
These are paintings where the sparks fly, the metal being hammered is red hot. The chains are incredibly heavy. The toil is dirty, dangerous but highly skilled and so, so difficult. You can almost hear the deafening sound of those rivets being smashed home.
It might be dirty, noisy and dangerous but team work is to the fore. The sense of community and companionship bonded this band of work brothers.
It was life lived out in the shadow of the giant vessels all depicted through the eye and unfailing brushstrokes of former archaeological illustrator and son of the working community, Graham Hodgson.
The ships being built dwarf everything in scale and dwarf the lives lived out between shifts in rows of terraces off dark back alleys. People who mighty find sanctuary in the inviting glow from little taverns. There is perhaps some poetry in the shafts of light from stain glass windows of churches that bleed into that darkness. Or ion the other hand it could be spell a sickening sadness through another death in the community. A loss that is a ghostly vision in a window being peered into endlessly by a former worker,m perhaps nearing the end of his own days.
I chatted with artist Graham Hodgson about his exhibition and started by asking him whether his archaeological illustrator background had much influence in the way he approaches his subjects.
GH: It is telling the stories through history but trying to do the technical side of it as well which comes through the archaeological side of it. It is all the research from looking at all the old tithe maps to talking to all the people that worked in the ship yards, oral history. So the archaeological side of it is very strong and that will always come through.
I depict the old back lanes, with the back yards I used to live there, so I have got a personal history of that so I know exactly what that is like. But my paintings showing working in the ship yards, hammering steel or putting rivets in or fixing propellers on ships, when health and safety really wasn’t there, that is from research. My archaeological background really helps me because I know how to research.
I was talking to a gentleman here tonight he worked near this building when the iron works were here. So talking to him about that was very interesting and could lead me to do a next batch of paintings, continuing the theme.
The paintings in this exhibition you have a direct depiction of what happened in the ship yards years ago. The dirt, the rats etc. And the health and safety wasn’t there. But then you’ve got what happens after the ship yards. The painting Salvation. If we talk about a near death experience. Apparently you would go through a tunnel of light and end up at the other side. I have called it Salvation because it is what you’ve done and what’s coming next. So it is a depiction in the cubist form of someone working in the ship yards and they are going into heaven. Whether they are facing us we don’t know because they are a silhouette. Or are they facing away and facing the actual light. So you can read it as going into heaven from someone who worked in the shipyards or it could be depicting as someone working in the shipyards with all the steam and the smoke, the smog, fumes, no health and safety, no masks, no boots, wearing their own clothes. So the painting has those two things going on. But it’s actually leaving that darkness and going into the light in a working day or leaving earthly pain and going into heaven. So it is the same thing, leaving the darkness and going into the light. So it is a depiction of the shipyards but also what’s at the end of it as well.
Q: And when you are talking about lack of health and safety a lot of these guys have had the time bomb of being hit by asbestosis years and years afterwards, haven’t they? Now for many.
GH: Yes. Of course. You have people with tinnitus, hard of hearing. Hard to breathe at times. Because you would have guys rolling up asbestos and playing with it and throwing it at each other. I know that because I have been told that is what some used to do.
I remember my father coming home and being very quiet and me being a young child not knowing why. Whereas now when I talk to him he says it was when he saw an accident. On launch day, they launched a ship and it was just before he became chief engineer and they were launching a Royal Navy ship. A guy got caught in the chains and they couldn’t find parts of his body. The chains were so heavy, hundreds of tons, he was caught with the chains around him and that part of his body was shoved into his body. So a limb went into his body.
My dad used to just come home. Now he will tell stories about when I was young.
Q: It is almost like the horrors of war.
GH: It is. It is that roughness, that community. Play hard, work hard. That kind of community bond that you would have with a colleague. I was in the services myself and we would have that comradeship, somewhere like the desert where you are relying on him and he is relying on you. It was the same thing in the shipyards it was that band of brothers.
Q: And I can see from your paintings that they are literally working in teams.
GH: All the time. They are working in teams like the Tail End Gang (painting showing a team fitting a propeller on a giant ship) was a nickname for the guys working on the propellers. That really skilled gang would work on putting the propeller on. So they would know intimately what the other guy was going to do or was thinking. It was that working kind of ethic.
I was talking to an older guy, before doing this painting. He was harking back to want to get back to that. Almost like when I die I want to go back to that. Wanting that comradeship which he hasn’t got now.
Q: The painting at the other end showing the launching of a ship shows the amazing scale of these vessels.
GH: Massive, that is why I painted it. When Princess Anne came up to see my work in South Shields, she was doing an opening and I had the artwork up and was invited to go along. She looked at the artwork and I told her that that painting was of Northumbria which she launched in 1969. I said to her what about the size of it as I have only seen photos. She said it was so big it went over you. You cannot really picture it but tried to get it. But she said you got the size right. Because that was just the nose of the ship I have painted.
Q: It is like a whale. You have also painted a street where the ship is ready to launch at the end of the houses, completely overshadowing the whole community.
GH: Yes. I have deliberately changed the actual historical scene on purpose. It goes down hill but I have made it flat on purpose so it is generic with any scene in the north east, even Middlesbrough etc.. So I have changed it. So if you lived on that street you would say everything is there but the street went down. But I have made it flat on purpose so it is generic with any scene. So it could be Swan Hunters, which it actually is. Or Redheads, or Tyne Dock or Middlesbrough or docks in Sunderland or Hull or anywhere. So it is generic and that feeling of it.
Q: There is a painting of a church and you can see the lights shining out into the dark. Is that Jarrow?
GH: This is South Shields. It is a place called Hardon village where my father used to pass. We moved to Marsden Road, he would pass the church every day. When he would leave for work in the morning it was night time. Up very, very early. When he came back it was dark. He saw something was going on at the church because the lights were on. So I depicted that scene because he would pass it when it was night time and that is part of the shipyards, it is part of the heritage of my area and part of my background from what I remember my father saying. My mam would say there is something happening at the church and then they talk about it. That is why I painted that because he would pass that everyday.
Q: It obviously means a lot to you, your heritage and your family heritage and no doubt you want to depict it all before it is gone from everybody’s memories.
GH: That is right. There was a lady in earlier on and she looked at a painting of the man looking into the window and started crying because that connected to her, that sense of loss, that sense of it has past, there is a wanting for it. The painting of the old guy looking in the window, that old guy could be anyone. He could have money in the bank, he’s could be retired. He is could spend time somewhere else. He could be meeting someone else. He could be in Paris. He could be in the Lake District. He could be somewhere where he felt a little bit better but he’s not interested in that, all he is interested in is staying in his little broken down house, his furniture has gone, his paintings have gone and he could be going to retirement home but he doesn’t want to, all he wants to do is sit in that dank house and look in that window where every so often he will sees (remember) his wife. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else he wants to be where he lived and where they had children. It is that sense of history.
Q: So are these paintings windows into people’s histories and shared memories?
GH: Yes, all these paintings I have spoken to gentlemen to find out what it was like doing that. Or where I spoke with Princess Anne to find out about the scale of the ship she launched. That is not even a quarter of the ship (that fills the canvas) it is just a fraction. Speaking to her about that, or the gentleman that made chains with his father. They had a big press.
(looking at a painting of men making chains) He said his buckle on his belt would get red hot. An old guy had said to him, turn your buckle around. You see they lifted the red hot metal and it was so close to them and their belt buckles. Their buckles would become red hot and if they bent over it would burn their chests. So they wore their belt buckles on their side so they didn’t burn themselves.
The guys holding the metal up were wiry guys but strong. They would have a big guy pulling the chain to hold it. The rest would hammer away at metal that was glowing red hot. They would pick it up when it was red hot without any gloves, no health and safety in their own clothes. They would walk home in the same clothes, their jackets would be ripped. No work clothes.
The old man Graham had talked to was describing the end of a generation here that worked in their own clothes without overalls, gloves, safety shoes, masks or anything at all. They moved their belt buckles that held their trousers up to prevent them getting molten from the red hot metal they were hammering just a few inches away from their bodies.
He said imagine the noise all day long of hammering the metal, if they missed it could have burst their eardrums. But they rarely did miss they were so skilful. So the conditions must have been incredible.
Auld Hands is on show at the Heritage Gallery, Cargo Fleet, Middlesbrough Road TS6 6XH until 15th August. There could hardly be a better place for an exhibition depicting the aces and places of north east heavy industry than the former head offices of Cargo Fleet Ironworks and later Dorman Long Teesside.
Please get along to see this powerful show. It is free. There is a big car park, a bus stop outside and a café in the gallery. Open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.