The 80th birthday of North East mining artist Bob Olley is being celebrated with a special exhibition at a County Durham gallery.

Backshift: Bob Olley at 80 will open at the Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland, on Saturday, 15 February and runs until Sunday 10 May.

It will feature more than 30 of Bob’s works, offering a window into his perspective on the heart, humour and quirky reality of the mining world and community life surrounding it in the North East of England.

On display are some of his earliest drawings from the 1960s, when he dreamt of a career as a magazine illustrator before fate sent him to follow in his father’s footsteps, into the local colliery.

Bob’s style captures iconic scenes and figures of the North East, from the Blaydon Races to the devastating miners’ strikes of the 1980s. Oil paintings, sculpture and preparatory sketches of his most-loved works are brought together as Bob looks back on over five decades of his artistic career, where life above and below ground is chronicled in his distinctive, graphic style.

His artwork shines the warm glow of a miner’s lamp on the camaraderie of miners hewing and hauling coal in dangerous and inhospitable conditions. And the pieces on show at the Mining Art Gallery span the gradual decline of the mining industry.

One of the paintings featured, High Speed Drifters, illustrates Bob’s very last job at Whitburn Colliery and captures the constantly wet and noisy environment in which miners spent their working hours.

Other pieces on display turn the spotlight on daily life in the tight-knit North East communities of the 1960s and 70s. This includes what is arguably his most famous work, The Westoe Netty, a humorous depiction of a public urinal. Though globally recognised now, the artwork sparked controversy at its first showing, nearly closing the entire exhibition on the grounds of indecency.

Bob, who lives and works in South Shields, said: “I have always expressed myself best through art. When I first went down the mines I found it hard to articulate how I felt about the blinding dark, the noise and the constant movement – the only way to describe my life underground was to draw it.

“It was the camaraderie, friendships and laughter that carried everyone along, that famous Geordie humour. I have a great love for the people of the North East and the mining communities, there’s something special about them and I love bringing that to life on canvas.”

Born into a mining family, Bob was just 17 when he became a miner in 1957, embarking on an 11-year career at the coastal pit in Whitburn.

But his life-long love for art saw him leave the mines in 1969 and begin exhibiting artwork, before becoming a full-time artist in 1974.

As well as paintings and drawings, Bob has been commissioned to create a wealth of public art across the North East. This includes the life-sized sculpture of Stan Laurel, which stands at Theatre Corner in Bishop Auckland, and a mural of the town’s history at Bishop Auckland Railway Station.

Angela Thomas, Exhibitions Curator at the Mining Art Gallery, said: “Bob is one of the most instantly recognisable artists in the North East. His unique graphic style brings to life the world of the miner and the solidarity of the communities that still exist.

“It has been such an honour for us to work with Bob on this exhibition. It seems fitting to have so many of his works, pride of place, in the Mining Art Gallery.”

Backshift: Bob Olley at 80 will be on show in a new, larger exhibition space in the Mining Art Gallery from Saturday, 15 February to Sunday 10 May 2020. It follows another exhibition in tribute to a great mining artist, Norman Cornish, which was part of a County-wide celebration of the artist’s centenary year.

And art-lovers can meet Bob in person at a special event, In Conversation with Bob Olley on Thursday, 23 April 2020. The event, from 6.30 – 8pm, will see the artist discuss the new exhibition with Bob McManners who, with Gillian Wales founded the Gemini Collection, which is housed in the Mining Art Gallery. The talk will take place at Auckland Tower and will be followed by a private tour of the exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery with Bob Olley. Tickets are £10 and include a glass of wine, to book visit Auckland Tower or book online at

Some of the works are on loan from South Shields Museum & Art Gallery, Bob Olley donated all 23 oil paintings from the museum’s 2018 exhibition King Coal: the life and legacy of South Tyneside’s mining communities to the gallery for future generations and other people in the region to enjoy. A new permanent space in the museum will be dedicated to Bob Olley’s work from summer 2020.

The Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland Market Place is part of the Auckland Project. It is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm. Admission is priced at £5 for adults, £4 for concessions and £1 for under-16s.

Entry to the Mining Art Gallery is also included within The Auckland Pass, which also permits entry to Auckland Castle, Bishop Trevor Gallery and Auckland Tower. It is priced at £12.50 per adult and is valid for multiple visits until January 2021.

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