Forgotten pitman finally to be remembered 130 years after his birth

Artist Jean Spence (second right) with Colin Kays (son of Jimmy Kays) and (left to right) Christina Borrill, Elsa Kyle and Lynn Walshaw (granddaughters of Jimmy Kays).
Artist Jean Spence (second right) with Colin Kays (son of Jimmy Kays) and (left to right) Christina Borrill, Elsa Kyle and Lynn Walshaw (granddaughters of Jimmy Kays).
1
Have your say

The artwork of a forgotten pitman painter is to be the focus of a series of talks and workshops.

James Kays dabbled with art throughout his life and, in the 1920s, enjoyed brief fame when his sketches appeared in the Peterlee Weekly Star newspaper.

EARLY DRAWING: This James Kays cartoon is dated 1912.

EARLY DRAWING: This James Kays cartoon is dated 1912.

But, over the years, his drawings was largely forgotten - until Jean Spence, a member of East Durham Artists’ Network, snapped up some on eBay last year.

“I knew I was bidding on the work of a Horden miner, as Jimmy had signed several of his pictures and there was a Horden address on some cartoons,” she said.

“But what I didn’t realise, until I saw his work, was how talented he was - hence the Network’s decision to make him the focus of talks and exhibitions.”

Jimmy was born to 22-year-old Nellie Kays on January 4, 1886, in Easington Lane. The family later moved to Spennymooor, but finally settled in Horden.

“He became a miner at 13,” said Jean. “It is possible that much of his mining imagery came from his observations and early experiences at Spennymoor pit.

“His work predates that of the Spennymoor Settlement - pitman artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness - but I wonder if there is some connecting thread?”

Jimmy married his first wife, Mary Ann Whittaker, in 1908 and the couple had five children. War, however, was on the horizon - and he went off to fight.

“He suffered a lot of tragedy. One of his children died in 1915, and two of his brothers - Thomas and Bernard - were killed in Belgium that year,” said Jean.

“Jimmy’s mother also died in 1915 and, just three years later, his wife Mary Ann passed away. Jimmy himself was injured in action in 1918 as well.”

After recovering from his war wounds, Jimmy found work at Horden pit and cared for his children alone - until marrying second wife Margaret Daley in 1925.

The couple had two children, but tragedy struck again in 1939 - when Margaret died just three weeks after giving birth to son Colin.

“Jimmy left mining at some point; I’m not sure why,” said Jean. “He went on to work as a binman and ended his working life as a watchman. He died in 1951.”

The Artists’ Network is now hosting a display of Jimmy’s work at the Art Block, Church Street, Seaham, in a bid to make the pitman’s art better known.

A series of talks focussing on Jimmy is also to be held at the venue, including one tonight, as well as a cartoon workshop inspired by Jimmy on February 8.

“He was never very well off and, apart from cartoons published in the Weekly Star, he doesn’t seem to have generated any income from his art,” said Jean.

“Although he dreamed of becoming an artist, Jimmy had no other realistic option other than mining. This is our way of remembering his life and work.”

* To find out more about the display, workshops and talks contact 078813 80027, email edanart@live.com or visit www.edan.org.uk