MINING is dead. Long live mining art. The gradual closure in the last half of the twentieth century of all the pits in the Great Northern Coalfield, an area stretching from just south of Cockfield in Teesdale to the coastal collieries at Amble, ended not only a once-vast industry, but also a way of life.

At the height of production and profit, such a change would have been unthinkable, and indeed, unimaginable.

But just as art is often all that remains after even the greatest of civilisations has long disappeared, so the legacy of the North-East's mining heritage is encapsulated in a large body of pictures produced by miners themselves.

Together, these amount to an important social document. Separately, as individual paintings, they offer a moving account of human endeavour and resilience.

This work and the phenomenon of northern mining artists - a distinct body which came into being between the two world wars - is the subject of a book, Shafts of Light, by Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, which was launched at Bishop Auckland Town Hall last Friday.

The occasion coincided with The Shaft, a exhibition of new paintings and earlier work by one of the best-known of the Durham coalfield artists, Tom McGuinness. The previous evening had seen the unveiling of a stained glass window, Steps to the Shaft, which McGuinness designed and has given to Bishop Auckland. The window forms an integral part of the town hall gallery which has been renamed in his honour.

Mining artefacts and banners, as well as paintings, were ranged round the room for the launch, which was attended by so many people that extra chairs had to be brought in before the background to the book was explained.

Co-author, Robert McManners, spoke after an introduction by Gillian Wales in her other capacity as town hall manager, and there were songs by the folk entertainer, Benny Graham.

Shafts of Light raises several questions, not least why there is such a plethora of art by and about mining in this region, especially when compared with the relative paucity of art from other heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, which might have been more visually compelling.

The book examines the importance of educational classes which led to the formation of the Ashington Group of artists and to the philanthropy behind the Spennymoor Settlement, which encouraged creativity as a way to recover self-esteem in the midst of Thirties' unemployment and deprivation.

The groups and the inspired teachers and individuals behind them seem to have provided an impetus that continued well after the end of the Second World War.

Extensively researched, the 250-page book is packed with interesting details about the social history of the area as well as the wider background of national events that affected miners and their industry.

The authors discuss the work of more than 70 artists including McGuinness and Norman Cornish, illustrating the work of all with 170 colour plates. Comparisons are also made with official war artists such as Stanley Spencer. Henry Moore and John Nash.

"Like Lowry," the book concludes, "artists of the calibre of Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness will find a permanent place in the history of art ...

"The mining artist has given validity to the mine as a legitimate subject ... the visual impact, the cameraderie, the danger, the appeal of the effects of light and the need to show the outside world how it was, all seem to have been powerful reasons for the burgeoning corpus of mining art."

* Shafts of Light, £12.95 (plus £2 p&p) is available from Gemini Productions, West House, 5 Etherley Lane, Bishop Auckland, Co Durham DL14 7QR, or ring Gillian Wales on 01388 602610.

* The Shaft exhibition runs until November 23. Pru Farrie