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A painting by Ralph Hedley called Out of Work shows how tough it was for many on Tyneside to support their families towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Out of Work

Out of Work 1888

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Shipley Art Gallery

Having gone to the quayside in the hope of earning earn a few shillings by unloading cargo it seems their luck was out.

The burgeoning coal and shipbuilding industries may have made owners and managers wealthy but among the working classes, poverty was widespread.

Children as young as 12 were sent down the mines, robbing them of a formal education.

Home Lessons

Home Lessons 1887

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Laing Art Gallery

The son of a jobbing builder in Newcastle, Ralph Hedley (1848–1913) was able to give an insider's view of these challenging times.

Although his father made him take up an apprenticeship as a woodcarver, he allowed him to go to art school in his spare time. One of his teachers, William Bell Scott (1811–1890), made some memorable images of the industrial north.

In Hedley's lifetime, coal was king. The north east was producing about a quarter of Britain's coal, with a workforce of some 200,000.

Going Home

Going Home 1888

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Laing Art Gallery

Mining back then was a dangerous occupation with little regard for health and safety. Working with hand picks in cramped conditions, there were frequent explosions, roof falls and floods. Hundreds lost their lives in a succession of pit disasters.

Going Home became one of Hedley's most popular images after it was mass-produced as a print. Geordie Haa'd the Bairn, showing the interior of a pit cottage, was also made into a successful print.

Geordie Haa'd the Bairn

Geordie Haa'd the Bairn 1890

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Laing Art Gallery

In his book, Ralph Hedley: Tyneside Painter, John Millard identifies 'Geordie' as a miner called Snowdon Pyle who was off work with a knee injury. Apparently, he was paid three shillings and sixpence and a pint of bitter for each sitting.

In parallel with his painting career, Hedley was developing a successful woodcarving business, providing decoration for ships, churches and the homes of the wealthy.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait 1895

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Laing Art Gallery

Despite his increasing prosperity, he never lost sympathy for those less fortunate than himself. His image of a downtrodden group in a used clothes market on the banks of the Tyne shows the same stretch of river as Out of Work a decade earlier.

Paddy's Clothes Market, Sandgate

Paddy's Clothes Market, Sandgate 1898

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Laing Art Gallery

And in Seeking Situations, set in Newcastle's public library, he shows that unemployment touched more than one strand of society.

Seeking Situations

Seeking Situations

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Shipley Art Gallery

Many of Hedley's earlier paintings, like this cat in a cottage window, show his more sentimental side.

Blinking in the Sun

Blinking in the Sun 1881

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Laing Art Gallery

But his most powerful work portrays the poor and dispossessed.

Blind Beggar

Blind Beggar 1897

Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)

Laing Art Gallery

More than 50 of Hedley's paintings were displayed at the Royal Academy in his lifetime and of the 76 works on Art UK, more than 40 are held by the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

After his death in 1913 the Newcastle Daily Chronicle paid him this tribute: 'What Burns did for the peasantry in Scotland with his pen, Ralph Hedley with his brush and palette has done for the Northumberland miner and labouring man.'

James Trollope, author and columnist