Song for Coal at the YSP

song for coal

“With Coal, we have light, strength, power, wealth, and civilization; without Coal, we have darkness, weakness, poverty, and barbarism. The most civilized nations of the world are those consuming the most Coal.” William J Nicolls, The Coal Catechism, 1898 (source)

2015 sees the 30th anniversary of the great Miners Strike which, when defeated, led to the decline of the once mighty British coal industry. A deliberate strategy of the then Government. Although today there are strong arguments against the burning of fossil fuels due to their effects of the resulting emissions of carbon dioxide on the climate, the coal industry played a vital part of the Industrial Revolution. It provided employment and fostered camaraderie amongst the miners and created strong communities. All that has been lost. There are very few coal mines left in Britain, although coal is still imported (49.4 million tonnes in 2013) and used to fuel power stations ,some of which are not too far from Wakefield. There’s still plenty of coal underground, but it’s cheaper, and more profitable for the energy companies, to bring it from elsewhere.

Wakefield is located in the Yorkshire coal field and to celebrate the role that coal has played in British history the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is showing an audio visual work by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson in the St Bartholomew’s Chapel, in the grounds of the estate. We drove over after we’d been to the Hepworth last Saturday to take a look.

Entering the chapel, we fumbled through the dark and sat down on one of the benches (having nearly tripped over one of them!). The work is a video installation accompanied by music. The artists have used the rose window from the Gothic Sainte Chapelle in Paris as a framework. The 152 individual panels are each used to display video images which change throughout the duration of the work, telling the story of coal – how it was formed, it’s chemical composition, its extraction and uses – forming a kaleidoscope effect.


Many of he images have been sourced from the collection of the National Coal Mining Museum and Drax Power Station, both within a few miles of YSP, in filming sections of the work. They have also included films of objects carved from hard cannel coal (a mining tradition) which they burned.

The images were accompanied by a plainsong composed by the artists, based on The Coal Catechism (1898) by William Jasper Nicolls, sung by members of Opera North.

The chapel was a fitting setting for what was a very moving, almost religious, experience.

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