One hundred years ago in 1915 a Derbyshire collier gladly joined the army to escape the mines. But in the Great War the 18-year-old former Heanor schoolboy George Bissill unwittingly encountered another life underground which proved more hellish than anything he endured at the coal face. Like many mine workers he was made a ‘Sapper’ – a Private in the Royal Engineers – and set to work in France tunnelling under No Man’s Land towards enemy lines.Although spared the horrors of the battlefields above, the Sappers’ subterranean labours held additional terrors. Potentially digging just yards from their German counterparts – who were tunnelling the opposite way – the sense of the unknown for the ‘sewer rats’ was chilling. Tunnel collapse, gassing, flood, explosions and unexpected enemy encounters were ever-present dangers – in an environment that even hardened miners found horribly uncomfortable.Bissill survived the ordeal but suffered lasting emotional trauma. Yet from those darkest days emerged something remarkable. Ten years later at a smart London gallery 28-year-old artist George Bissill held his first solo exhibition. The art world cognoscenti heaped gushing acclaim on the ‘Pitman Painter’ for the ‘raw emotion of his touchingly fresh talent’ and ‘his inner consciousness of what is truly real’. The show caused quite a sensation, and collectors snapped up Bissill’s work. How his world had changed – he soon travelled to Paris where he received similar praise. His career as an artist blossomed.
But only for a time – Bissill died in 1973 largely forgotten. The ever-fickle art world had dimmed his spotlight to almost nothing. Yet there are now signs of a revival. His remarkable story is being used in educational material, and salerooms are achieving improving prices for his work. Time to illuminate his name once more… Continue reading