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Richard and I at Botallack

H R Ordish

Geoffrey Ordish

Photographer and Painter of Cornish Mining Landscapes


A considerable number of Carn Brea Mining Society members attended the preview of paintings by the famous engine house photographer H G Ordish on 10th September at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. The main purpose of the exhibition was, of course, to show to a wider public the paintings of Geoffrey Ordish, but there were also on display various photographs and other items belonging to him.   We were welcomed by Geoffrey's son Mark Ordish who explained the workings of his famous father.  Mark still holds all of his father's collection, although some photos are stored at the RCM.   We were also welcomed by Amy Seymour, formerly of the CSM, who is now the Exhibition Organiser at the Museum in Truro. 


H.G.Ordish was born in Hertfordshire in 1901.  His first contact with Cornwall was during the First World War period, when on cycling holidays with his parents. He recalled staying at Perranporth, then a small working village, and being lulled to sleep by the rumble of water-powered stamps up in Perrancombe.

The explosive works on Cligga Head were working overtime and each morning there was the spectacle of a primitive bus, packed to overflowing with workers, grinding up the hill from the village. In those days, West Cornwall must have seemed full of quite recently abandoned mines and many that were still working. To a scientifically minded boy with an interest in geology, all this was fascinating.


HGO went to Cambridge University in 1921 where he studied chemistry and developed his interest in geology and mineralogy. He became a keen motorcycle tourist, owning a series of Scott motorcycles over the next ten years, on which he travelled widely about the country.


He generally had two visits to Cornwall each year, at first with motorcycling friends, later more as dedicated trips to visit the mines. He started photographing the mines in the late 1920s and later regretted the ‘fatal delay’ in not starting sooner, and with a better camera.


Although HGO’s mother had studied art at the Royal Academy in the 1890s and had considerable artistic ability, her son showed no artistic leanings in his youth. HGO made his first attempts at painting in about 1927, and may have had some instruction from a Miss Bulkley, who was running a studio in St Agnes. These early efforts were in conventional watercolour technique.


HGO took a job as science master at the new public school at Bryanston in Dorset. In about 1932 he bought a chain-drive Frazer Nash car, which proved very effective for many years and enabled him to explore all the mining districts in detail up until the Second World War. This was the period when he developed a passion for the Cornish landscape, and for recording the mines with his Leica camera. Many of his excursions were in company with Kenneth Hamilton Jenkin who became a foremost historian of the West Country mines.


During this period, HGO did a certain amount of painting, but in the 1940s, his style changed from bright and light, to darkly chaotic industrial scenes, before settling into the distinctive style, which is presented in this exhibition. He became more engrossed with painting in his fifties and continued working at it with great persistence till the end of his life at the age of 92. While the photographs cover all the mining districts and are always exact in time, place and detail, featuring engines, streamworks, cliffs and seascapes, the paintings concentrate on the spiritual aspect of specific places.

In the paintings, HGO attempts to capture the unique atmosphere he experienced in these places, where so much human skill, courage and sheer backbreaking labour had once been expended.


Suddenly silent, as it seemed, the old mines stood in their own no-mans land, between their industrial past, and the hectic world of commerce and new technologies developing all the time around their isolation  -  technologies that will one day pounce and seize these isolated pockets of ‘wasteland.’ The apparent timelessness of some of the scenes has already proved illusory. Many acres have been redeveloped for modern industry; mine burrows have been removed, flattened and ‘landscaped’ engine houses have been demolished for one reason or another and the old mines make a smaller impact on the Cornish landscape than they did fifty years ago.


The exhibition portrayed Geoffrey Ordish’s interpretation of the minescapes as he saw them; ivy encompassing remote chimney stacks, heather struggling for a foothold on arsenical burrows, delicate willows and birch sprouting from ochre stained pools.  The exhibition ran from 11th September until 7th November.


H G Ordish is a name very much associated with Cornish mining photographs.   A selection of these was published as two volumes in the 1960s called 'Cornish Engine Houses - A Pictorial Survey' and ' A Second Pictorial Survey'.


Thanks go to Amy Seymour of RCM and Mark Ordish for the help in the above article.

H G Ordish on his Scott

H G Ordish rode great distances over poor roads and mine tracks to record the rapidly disappearing evidence of Cornwalls great mining history for future generations.

Typical Ordish photo

Beam winder

Ordish painting

Engine house  A "Cornish Castle" in retirement © 2003

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