The work of Tyldesley artist, Roger Hampson (1925 - 1996) is unfashionable and slow to sell. In the dread word of the gallerist, he is not "commercial", and possibly never has been. Yet we own nearly 20 of his paintings, are very happy to own more, and believe that a work by Hampson should form a key part of any self-respecting art collection in the North. If there is one artist who can fairly be described as fundamental to The Northern School, then it is Roger Hampson. This is a bold claim - but let's look at some facts.
Hampson was President of the Manchester Academy of Fine Art between 1969 and 1976, when the Academy had a much higher profile and role than it does today – he succeeded Harry Rutherford to the post. 20 of his paintings, particularly a body of work depicting mines and miners, are held in public collections - this is 20 more than Braaq and Helen Bradley, two of the most expensive Northern artists, combined.
Hampson is important enough to be dedicated his own chapter in each of the "Big Three" books on Northern Art - Peter Davies’ original and reboot of "The Northern School" and Martin Regan's "Northern School; A Reappraisal”. In fact, for Davies' original iconic book, the front cover featured a Hampson painting (Pigeon Fanciers, Bickershaw Colliery, Leigh).
In 2009, a short book was published on Hampson entitled "Roger Hampson - a Lost Landscape", and it was accompanied by a retrospective exhibition at Gallery Oldham. Again, this is one more biography and public retrospective afforded to either Braaq or Helen Bradley.
By any measure, these facts clearly demonstrate the importance of Hampson. The reason for his importance is also the clue as to why he is unfashionable, and uncommercial, and the secret is in the title of Stephen Whittle's book. Hampson painted what is now (and was becoming so then) a lost landscape. Specifically, life in towns of Lancashire where the mills or the mines had fallen - or were falling - silent.
Throughout his career, Hampson was drawn to painting the people he met on the streets of his home town, Tyldesley, and surrounding areas. From his childhood bedroom window, he could see nearby collieries and the imposing bulk of Caleb Wright's No6 Mill on Shuttle Street. This is the essence of Hampson's impact - he was motivated to paint a landscape and way of life that he knew was fast disappearing. His work captures the bleakness of the northern landscape as well as the warmth and humour of its people.
In 2020, it's sometimes easy to forget how important the cotton industry was to Lancashire, and in turn how important it was to the world. Great Britain used to be the world’s biggest cotton cloth producer - the mechanisation of spinning and weaving of cotton drove the industrial revolution, and Lancashire was the heart of this industry. By 1860, there were more than 2,500 cotton mills in Lancashire, employing more than 400,000 people and producing half the world's cotton. Most of the magnificent mansions of Lancashire were built from the wealth generated by cotton. Edgar Degas’ famous painting – Cotton Merchants in New Orleans - was allegedly initially commissioned for a Lancashire cotton merchant, and Manchester became universally known as Cottonopolis.
Yet by the 1930s, 90% of the workers were gone, and the industry was rescued by the nationalisation of 105 companies being merged into the Lancashire Cotton Corporation. In 1950, it had only 53 operating mills, and the rump were eventually acquired by Courtaulds in 1964.
One Mill complex was painted by Hampson many times, and illustrates the point perfectly. Atlas Mills in Bolton were at one time one of the largest concentrations of cotton spinning capacity in the world, with 400,000 spindles in use and some 2,000 people employed across 8 Mills owned by the Musgrave Spinning Company. Today, only Mills 6, 7 and 8 remain and a large part of the site is now occupied by a supermarket. Also on the site is the Bolton Steam Museum, and it is hard to imagine how the site was at its peak.
The same fate befell Stanley Mill, known as Cannon Mill, which was demolished in 1974 and its former site now occupied by a supermarket. Some of the mills Hampson painted are still standing, such as Reddish Mill, but none are still operating as mills. In less that a century, this industry in this part of the country had been transformed from dominating the world, to decay and ruin. This decay took with it local pubs, houses and churches and it is debatable whether the Lancashire towns affected have yet recovered their sense of identity or way of life.
The decline of one of Britain's other great industries - coal - was also captured by Hampson. It’s easy to forget that Lancashire was one of the most important parts of the British coal mining industry. At its peak in 1907, Lancashire boasted 358 collieries, employing more than 100,000 men. Its decline was precipitous, and by 1967 only 21 pits remained. Most of these had closed by the end of the Miners’ Strike in 1984, and the final pit in the region finally closed in 1993.
Hampson spent several years depicting scenes of the industry, and these are some of his most powerful works. The record price for a Hampson painting at auction – over £14,000 – was for a mining picture, the magnificent Return from Gin Pits. His paintings of mines and miners at work and play are of particular social importance and were to have formed the centrepiece of The National Museum of Mining Art, which was to have been funded by the National Union of Mineworkers. The plan was essentially scuppered by the financial consequences of the Miners’ Strike and much of the best work is now scattered across various museums, most notably Salford.
Hampson also painted the industry in Wales, where the coal industry was of more importance than it was to Lancashire. At its peak, the Welsh coal industry employed more than 270,000 men across more than 600 mines. Deep Navigation Colliery depicts a mine near Merthyr in Wales. It was at the time the deepest coalmine in Wales and provided the coal for the furnaces of the RMS Lusitania in its attempt at the Blue Band (awarded for the fastest transatlantic crossing). The mine closed in 1991 and the site is now a park with few traces of its heritage remaining. Maerdy Colliery in the Rhondda Valley was the final deep mine to close in the Valley, bringing to an end nearly two hundred years of mining in this part of Wales. It was closed for a year during the owner's strike in the 1980s, the last display of worker activism that earned the Colliery the nickname "Little Moscow' during the 1926 General Strike.
But back to the idea of a painting being commercial or not. Hampson’s pictures are not pretty wall decoration which will tone with your newly acquired scatter cushions. If you want something decorative for your walls, go to Ikea and buy a print for £50. If you want a painting with meaning, a jigsaw piece in our country's history and an important part of the story of the North and of The Northern School in art, then buy a Roger Hampson. As the artist himself said in 1977: “To be born and brought up in Tyldesley was to witness the end of the industrial revolution in this area.”