1974: Geordie Pride, by Ronald Embleton, Sid Chaplin and Frank Graham

Frank Graham’s collaboration with Ronald Embleton is principally remembered for its depictions of life on Hadrian’s Wall, but Embleton also painted depictions of the natural world and, in Geordie Pride (1974), realisations of historical north-east occupations. Backgrounds showed relevant street or landscape views, with particular emphases on buildings lost within living memory, while working or fancy clothes peculiar to each trade as well as tools were based on ‘painstaking research’.

Frank Graham books have a particular concern with cultural transmission, aware that they were appearing in a period when established industries were contracting and uncertain what was to replace them. With them went layers of social life. In 1971 the Douglas Hotel in Newcastle was demolished, after several years of speculation. It had been built in 1877 in the triangle between Grainger Street, Neville Street and Westgate Road. Its landmark status relied on its position, its architecture – John Edward Watson, who also designed the Bowes Museum near Barnard Castle, was its architect – and its bar, which was popular with business travellers arriving at Newcastle. In developing the office block which replaced it, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries pledged to reassemble its buffet, metalwork, glass panels, Pre-Raphaelite paintings and all, in ‘exactly the same way’ (Evening Chronicle, 2 December 1968). Geordie Pride was named after the end result of this project, the new pub emerging from the reconstruction of the old Douglas Hotel bar within the new office development, itself undertaken by London and Overseas (Investments) Ltd, who bought the site from Scottish and Newcastle and St Mary’s Hospital Trust.

Graham’s introduction to the book indicates that Embleton’s paintings were not initially intended for the pub, but Scottish and Newcastle Breweries had emerged as a buyer who would keep the series together and on public display, ‘seen by our people in the normal course of their lives’ in the Geordie Pride. The introduction serves in part as an invocation not just to civic pride but to Northumbrian regionalism, contrasting ‘our people and our land’ with ‘the hideous uniformity and banality characteristic of so many cities in the south’.

The concept of the invention of tradition was not as current in 1974 as it became subsequently, but there is a deliberate blending of localities in the first of the paintings which encourages questions. ‘The Fisherman’ depicts the harbour of Holy Island with Lindisfarne Castle in the background, and a fisherman in the foreground, a fisher girl behind him closer to the shoreline. While their garb is based on those depicted in early nineteenth-century paintings by T.L. Busby, his subjects were in Hartlepool, some eighty-eight miles away by road. One might wonder how similar those communities and their dress actually were. There’s an assumption being reinforced of a common ‘Northumbrian’ identity, which had wider support then from officialdom – seen in bodies such as the Northumbria Tourist Board. Some recent academic work has cut against this grain, although the idea of a common Northumbrian experience has been evocatively championed by Dan Jackson in The Northumbrians (2019).

The subsequent Embletons are ‘The Northumbrian Piper’ – a portrait of sometime piper to the duke of Northumberland and Graham author Jack Armstrong – ‘Cushie Butterfield’, ‘The Sword Dancers’ (after an engraving of a lost painting by Ralph Hedley), ‘The Ballad Seller’, ‘The Pitman’, ‘The Roast Chestnut Seller’, ‘The Coachman’, ‘The Cullercoats Fish Wife’, and ‘The Bondager’. Tbe juxtapositions made in each are educative choices. To mention just a few, Cushie Butterfield, the heroine of Geordie Ridley’s song, is shown with tankard in hand against a depiction of a Sandgate overlooked by taverns, but where families also gather at Sandgate Pant for fresh water. ‘The Keelman’ is a proud figure astride the prow of his boat, before a quietly thriving Quayside, difficult to reconcile with the dark and decaying buildings of which I gained an impression on occasional childhood visits to the Sunday market a few years later, but a reminder that Newcastle’s commerce was founded upon what was traded at its quays. The nineteenth-century Ballad Seller is a retailer of song and story not too far removed from the pamphleteer-lecturer Frank Graham; behind him is the Elizabethan tavern the Golden Lion on Bigg Market, perhaps the Douglas Hotel of its many days, not long before its 1883 demolition. The Cullercoats Fish Wife is auburn-haired bonnyness, canny by night and morn, looking out of the picture as if towards opportunity, unchallenged: but Graham notes in the text that ‘Cullercoats is no longer a busy fishing port and gone are the famous Cullercoats fish-wives.’ The painting also appeared as the cover of Graham’s Tynemouth, Cullercoats, Whitley Bay & Seaton Delaval (1973) for the Northern History Booklets series. The Bondager is a young woman with the measure of the painter, her scarf close around her face and her hoe, perhaps taller than herself, over her shoulder. There’s a gentility in her face but her boots are large and tough; she might be low in the hierarchy, being the servant of a hired worker, but she asserts her place in a common aristocracy of labour.

The book’s thirty-two pages end with a short essay by Sid Chaplin, then perhaps the secretary-general of Northumbrian letters. He approved of Ronald Embleton’s work, with a few caveats. He didn’t mention – but The Journal of 12 March 1974 did – that Embleton lived in Southbourne, Bournemouth, and when painting these scenes had not yet set foot in the north-east. For Chaplin, the north-east’s sharp divisions between occupations had endured from the early modern period, protected by the comparatively small number of landowners in the region and continuity of succession in estates, not seriously challenged until rises in income tax and death duties. His observation that many of the surviving ‘basic industries’ of the north-east had become ‘living museums’ was sharp, and that rationalisation was well advanced in sweeping them away was evident. He seems less optimistic about the perpetuation of a Northumbrian culture founded upon the old industries than Graham, but his recognition that the outrageous costumes of Tyneside women out in Newcastle on hen nights were a survival from the old days is also a nod to the future.

Not all the illustrations were by Ronald Embleton. Chief among the reproductions of other works was Wilson Hepple’s ‘Gallowgate Hoppings’, painted in the 1880s and in 1974 in the headquarters of Scottish and Newcastle Breweries Ltd. on Gallowgate. The inclusion of this celebration of gathered humanity from a corporate collection, in the context of the book, helps imply that the company’s duty is not only commercial success and the distribution of dividends but the facilitation of civic life and the maintenance, duly transformed, of a cultural inheritance. Such were the hopes of the book for the Geordie Pride.

The Geordie Pride opened in 1974, the old bar from the Douglas Hotel installed, Ronald Embleton’s paintings on the walls, and the lounge’s design recalling Tyneside shop fronts of the nineteenth century. This last note makes one fear that an appeal to authenticity might have toppled over into kitsch. Indeed, William Feaver’s review of the exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery preceding the pub’s opening denounced Embleton’s working figures as ‘sort of Geordie Barbi [sic] dolls’, representative of ‘commercial, professional Geordieism… a smart, synthetic Tyneside’ (The Journal, 22 March 1974). This at best doesn’t appreciate and at best rejects Embleton’s aims – the smoke and dust and dirt of working life were not to be glamourised, but the people beneath them and their clothes and working equipment possessed a clear and shining heroism – and there’s surely some snobbery in Feaver’s condescension towards the commercial artist. It must be acknowledged, though, that Embleton was on surer ground on some subjects than others: ‘The Sword Dancers’, based on an engraving of a lost work by Ralph Hedley (1848-1913), has been criticized for its lack of understanding of the sword dance, Eddie Cass arguing ‘Embleton does not know what to do with the swords and, unless I am mistaken, the Bessy is a woman and not a man in a woman’s dress.’ (‘Ralph Hedley and his Sword-Dance Paintings’, Folk-Music Journal 8 (2003), 335-344, 344)

The interior of the Geordie Pride, as opened in 1974. Source: Newcastle Historian at Skyscraper City

The combination of elements from different times and traditions in the Geordie Pride’s huge interior walked the borders of kitsch and folk with a fine line. It looks in part like a set from the most pop-art episodes of The Avengers or The Prisoner. As Sid Chaplin suggested, there are reasons on Tyneside why some historical phenomena linger longer than elsewhere. Perhaps, too, the fusion of Graham’s democratic socialist civic collective identity with the commercial philosophy behind the Geordie Pride pub was an uncomfortable survival of the long 1960s. The Geordie Pride didn’t last. One historian of Tyneside pubs said that a new generation of drinkers in central Newcastle wanted high volume music and didn’t appreciate themed surroundings such as the Geordie Pride, so after early high takings it rapidly declined and closed in 1981. As Chaplin’s rationalisation took further effect, the employment which had supported earlier business drinkers and after-work drinker-diners became more precarious. A new generation might have sought for their nightlife not a refuge in a reconstituted past, but a quest, however self-obliterating, for a new Year One.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s