A FASCINATING collection of art by an east Durham pitman has gone on display for the first time – and reunited members of his family in the process.

The talent of the late coal hewer and self-taught artist Jimmy Kays was rediscovered following a chance online purchase by local history and art enthusiast Jean Spence.

He was initially the subject of mistaken identity, due to a series of similarities, with a different James Kays - and the misspelling of his name in the records.

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But news of the drawings reached the granddaughters of the correct Jimmy Kays in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and in the south of France, where some his works still adorn their walls.

And it was discovered his son Colin Kays, 76, still lived in Horden, near Peterlee, where the family came from.

Mr Kays was today (Friday, June 12) joined at the unveiling of an exhibition of his prints in Horden Heritage Centre by several relatives, including the artist’s grandchildren Christine Borrill from France, Lynn Walshaw of Winston, near Barnard Castle, and Elsa Kyle of Ely.

The evocative series of cartoons, greetings cards and pictures for calendars offers a glimpse into the life and language of the east Durham coalfield in the early 20th Century. Many of the cartoons had been reproduced at the time in the Weekly Star, a now-forgotten County Durham newspaper.

Ms Spence, of the East Durham Artists’ Network (Edan), who discovered the originals has edited a book, The Lost World of Jimmy Kays: Miner Artist.

She said: “This collection of drawings and cartoons, some of which are lino prints used to make Christmas Cards and Calendars, are the work of a talented artist who had to work hard to earn his living in the mines.

“They show an amazing ability to capture the characters of people who lived in east Durham and especially the wry humour of the men pitmen in this area.

“It’s a shame that his work is not more widely known, but it seems that James Kays was a very modest man and so did not seek publicity in his lifetime.”

Mr Kay’s son was only 12 when his father died, but he has fond memories of him and his passion for art.

He said: “My father was a wonderful man. I remember him drawing often. Sometimes he’d have me and my friends pose for him so he could get figures right for Christmas cards and things.

“He was an intelligent man and like so many at that time had limited education and left school at 13. That never seemed to hold him back and I love the pitmatic language he used in his pictures.

“I’m very proud to see his art on display like this. It’s wonderful that he’s getting recognition for his talent after all this time. I thought the world of my Dad. He was my hero.”

The prints on display were funded by the Durham Heritage Coast, whose project officer Louise Harrington, said: “We’re so pleased that we know a little more about James Kays the pitman artist. It offers a fascinating insight into life in this area in the early 20th Century and is certainly something we should celebrate and treasure.”

The exhibition is at the Horden Heritage Centre, Welfare Park, Horden until July 31 - open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1.30am to 3pm.