George Bissill - Miner, Soldier and Artist

From hewing coal to making art

George was badly gassed in 1918 and had to leave the army. With few employment prospects, he went back to work in the Nottinghamshire mines. He later said of this time: ' The Horror of returning to the mines, even from the battlefield, was indescribable. I could scarcely breathe and continually thought of those dreadful three hours of slow suffocation'. 

Unable to stand the strain of the mines, George applied to the Ministry of Pensions and got a grant for one year of tuition at the Nottingham School of Art. Afterwards he began working on his art throughout the day, supporting himself with a part-time job as a postman. 

In 1922 George went to London and started working as a pavement artist. There he was discovered by a journalist at The Evening News and the paper did a feature on his work. The Arts League of Service became interested in George and urged him to do a set of drawings of the mines. The drawings, showing powerful and grim images of life in the coal mines were exhibited at the Redfern Gallery in 1925 and provoked a great deal of interest. 

P.G. Konody, the Observer’s Art Critic wrote on 12 April 1925 of Bissill’s ‘quite exceptional talent’:

‘His drawings of the coal mines are essentially modern in spirit. They are not so much visual impressions as rhythmically organised designs showing what it feels like to be working in the bowels of the earth.’

George Bissill had further exhibitions and he also undertook commercial commissions for posters from the London and North Eastern railway, the Post Office and the oil company Shell. He moved to Hampshire in the 1930s and lived quietly in the country, painting mostly landscapes. 

Glossary: 

Commission – a job or task for which someone is paid a fee
Exceptional – showing great ability for something, above average
Gassed – suffered from an attack of poison gas used in WW1 battle
Provoke – to stir emotions or make people want to respond 
Tuition – teaching given to a small group or one person

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