Pitmen Heaving the Coal
M W Ridley

Wood engraving
Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam


Objective Description
      This graphic image is divided into two sections - left and right. The left-hand portion of the image portrays three scantily clad coal miners at work. They are illuminated by a lamp placed beneath the standing figures. This source of light, in a darkened shaft, illuminates the workers and their tools. The extreme left-hand figure is kneeling and in action. His left hand is about to beat the chisel that is poised at the wall. Behind him, a standing figure moves to the wall with his pick axe. The light shines on their upper torsos, indicating reasonably young men. A third worker pushes filled cart away from the wall, the cart being on tracks. His body is bent to the weight of the cart and he too is illuminated by the light beneath. Tools of the workmen lie beneath the workmen and cart.
      The right hand portion of the composition is occupied with another drama. A young boy with a pony fills the right hand portion of the print. The viewer sees the pony first, as the animal is bathed in light from the illumination of the second lamp. The young boy's face is illuminated as well. An older man stands behind the filled cart and holds the lamp, while appearing to be in conversation with the young boy.
      One gets the illusion of a closed and confined space, as the background walls are dark against the illuminated figures. The ground also appears darkened, focusing the viewer's attention on the figures.

Subjective Analysis
      Images of the working class were often romanticized in Victorian English painting. This image, an illustration about the Durham coal miners, appeared in the magazine Graphic, and made no allusions to the 'romance' of working class life. Lifelike figures and compositions were often marked with contrasts of light and dark - drawing the viewer's attention to the nuances of facial and bodily characteristics as well as to the drama of the situation. The strong chiaroscuro (light and dark) of this image relays the sweat and hard work of the miners without any romantic allusions.
      This image focuses on the aspect of the conditions of the men and boys working in the coalmines. Scantily clad men went deep into the mines to dig coal that could be brought to the surface via pony drawn carts. The three figures on the left rely on their own strength as well as the lamplight to guide them as they go about their tasks. The darkened shape of the coal cart conveys its own weight and is heightened by the fact that a miner is bodily pushing it. His tools lie on the surface to the right of his foot.
      The young boy and pony form a curious addition. The pit boy is clothed, as is the other adult male in the composition. The pony is hitched up with a harness while the boy holds a rod in his right hand and looks as if he is about to hook up to the coal cart. The second lamp illuminates these actions. The contrast between a young child and strong horse highlights the brute strength of the miners themselves.

When the policemen saw the dangers that the miners worked in they said - "Why we would not work in such places for a pound a day." And the colliers might get a pound a day if they liked - for the coal was the spring of all commerce and industry, and a pound of it was worth more than a pound of gold. They had to sell their labour, and it was duty to sell it at the highest price. If all the colliers in the Kingdom were to lay down their tools and demand a high price for their labour they could get it…

Notes by the Chief Constable of Staffordshire—Meeting of Colliers, 30 August, 1858