WHEN THE SHIP COMES IN: in conversation with artist Bob Olley

After leaving school Bob worked in Whitburn Colliery from 1957 until he left in 1968, his love of everything Geordie inspired him to capture on canvas the heart and humour of the North East.

His first gallery showing was in Bede Gallery, Jarrow in 1971, he sold his first oil painting in Gosforth’s Novo Gallery and in South Shields Library in 1972 the painting Westoe Netty featured, it almost closed the exhibition down due to ‘indecency’ – amongst all of his work this has been the most popular.

Westoe Netty.

Somebody told me a few years ago they had been in America and were filling up at a petrol station. He was talking to his partner when the petrol attendant recognised the accent ‘Hey whereabouts in England are you from ?’  ‘We’re from the North East, South Shields’. ‘Do you know Westoe Netty?’ he replied. ‘I have a print from there’.

By the ‘70s Bob was a full time artist and sculptor and received commissions from a number of organisations including Tyne Tees programme What Fettle. He also held a number of exhibitions around the North East displaying his oil paintings of the coalmining industry.

In the seventies all my work was about North East culture and I knew there were Geordies scattered all over the world but trying to contact this potential market by letter or telephone was impossible, that is until the internet came about.

But when I first kicked off I discovered the open air art market on the Armstrong Bridge at Newcastle where I sold my work every Sunday for almost 25 years. I was one of the first with prints which gave you the freedom to get on with new work as the prints sold.

The bridge was where I learnt how to handle people, you got good comments and some not so good. There was one guy who was looking at a painting, they’re all framed with glass in, he was staring closely at it and I was thinking I’m getting a sale here. ‘Can I help you?’ ‘No’ he replied. ‘I’m just combing my hair’ (laughs).

Along with a number of statues around Tyneside – war hero John Kirkpatrick in South Shields and film actor Stan Laurel in North Shields – Olley drew caricatures of celebrity guest speakers including Tony Blair, Jo Brand, David Walliams and Alan Bennett at the David Miliband lectures in South Shields – David was former MP of the town.

What are you doing now ?

I’ve lived in the town most of my life but never took much interest in the shipyards although I knew a few people who worked there when I was a pitman at Whitburn Colliery.

So lately I’ve been working on paintings about the shipbuilding industry because I’ve moved away from the coalmining subject which I’ve done for many years plus I’ve been through a dry period where I was struggling to do something new which is rare for me.

I done a lot of research about the industry, photographs, old black and white film footage, and found it extremely interesting. What really caught my interest was how many trades there was in shipbuilding and finding the safety aspect was virtually non-existent. It was fascinating watching how they work.

Men were walking on a seven inch wide plank 80 feet in the air without a safety harness, or a rivet catcher armed with only a ladle to catch white hot rivets hurled at him from 15 or 20 meters. They’d have a flat cap on – not a hard hat, and clothes that look like they wear in the pub.

In the coal industry we were lucky because we had showers, they just walked straight out of the shipyard and went home. Loss of limbs and the mortality rate might have been higher than the coal industry, it’ll be interesting to find out. It’s a fascinating subject for me, a totally new direction and I’m enjoying the challenge.

When I was in Whitburn Colliery we stayed with the same set of blokes working an area, you never went off and worked anywhere else in the pit, but in the shipyards once the ship had been built the workers split off into different areas of the yard.

As a coal miner you usually work with the same work mate or “Marrer” within a group of say twenty men on the same coal face in the same district for years at the same colliery. But as one ship was launched many moved to another yard, the industry didn’t appear to have the same bonding that coal mining had.

In research the word oakum came to light. I found that the prison service in Victorian times used to buy miles of old rope from the shipyards and part of the prisoners punishment was to unravel it and then put it together with oakum.

They would then roll it up and sell it back to the shipyards – that’s where the saying ‘money for old rope’ came from. The yards would then use it to seal the joints on the deck planks. You could have five trades working to get the deck laid – could you imagine the noise they made.

These paintings I’m working on now have a greater depth than the coalmining just because you are working in a smaller space down in the pit. You have a much bigger background for shipbuilding and I enjoy putting in the cranes and seagulls. The paintings become much busier.

In South Shields the yards around Commercial Road, Holborn and Laygate areas had a few pubs and small cafes for the workers. It’s amazing how an area of the town can change its use once the area gets taken over by new technology or housing. In a matter of thirty years the industry and all the people who worked there were gone.

I’ve been working on these paintings around four months and for one of them it’s the longest I’ve worked on any one piece of work. There was a point you can get to where it isn’t working and to get over that I just push through, then it’s a downhill cruise to the finish of the painting.

The Museum and Art Gallery in South Shields got in touch about contributing to their new exhibition about Tyneside shipyards next year. I’ll put in about half a dozen paintings and the museum staff are also on the hunt for items to display such as photographs, certificates, tools, workwear and any associated memorabilia. 

Anyone who worked in South Tyneside’s yards, or individuals with something they could lend for display, should contact Adam Bell, adam.bell@twmuseums.org.uk or (0191) 211 5599 during museum opening hours. 

For more information on the work of Bob Olley check the official website:

Welcome to the home of North East Artist Robert Olley

Interview by Gary Alikivi  October 2021.

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