We all know that Northern England, home to the Industrial Revolution, has been a land of great engineers. Does that mean it must be second rank when it comes to poets, musicians and artists?

To Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, it was clear: excellence in music, poetry and art largely existed south of Lincoln, while those who excelled in engineering, science and theology mostly came from the North.

In a rudimentary 1888 study of Victorian men eminent in literature, poetry, art, music, medicine, sculpture, engineering, law and other intellectual pursuits, culled from biographical dictionaries, Conan Doyle found that Derbyshire and Lancashire came bottom for overall intellectual production.

Northumberland fared better, but “produces men of a practical turn. There are no poets and few authors in her records, but en revanche there is in the past the great Robert Stephenson, and in the present Lord Armstrong and Sir Daniel Gooch, engineers, with Burdon Sanderson, Sir G.B. Airy, and Myles Birket Foster.”

Of course, it does not have to be either/or. It is little surprise that writers, musicians and artists should be thinner on the ground the further away they are from the capital’s networks of patrons, agents and impresarios. Nonetheless, Northerners have made a wide and varied contribution to British culture.

It has deep roots. The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria transformed itself in little more than century from a pagan, illiterate society into Northern Europe’s leading intellectual, Christian and artistic centre. Its golden age produced scholars such as Bede and Alcuin and illuminated manuscripts including the Lindisfarne Gospels.

In modern times, Northern culture has both rural and urban strands. For William Wordsworth, it was a radical step to return to the Lake District in 1799 to lead a poet’s life in the “grand/ And lovely region” where he grew up, at a time when mountains were still a source of fear. He helped to launch the Romantic age with its concern for the human relationship to nature.

The Brontës brought their own perspective to that, although a fixation on their life on the wild moorlands has sometimes contributed to the stereotype of the North as uncivilised and half-tamed. In reality, Haworth was an industrial community with varied links to the outside world.

On the urban side, Elizabeth Gaskell was pre-eminent among industrial novelists of the 1840s and 1850s. But her North and South (1854) had a troubled genesis. Charles Dickens published it in his magazine Household Words, but they tussled over style and length. Sales of the magazine dropped, probably because it followed too quickly after Dickens’ Hard Times, though he blamed it squarely on Gaskell’s “wearisome” novel.

North and South tells the story of Margaret Hale, forced to leave the rural south and settle with her parents in the Northern industrial town of Milton. Sympathetic to the poor, she clashes with mill owner John Thornton, but is also attracted to him. After a bitter strike, they come to a better understanding of each other and of the complexity of labour relations. She finally accepts his offer of marriage.

This is a romantic novel, but it is so much more than an industrial Pride and Prejudice. Its theme is the need to pull down barriers between self and others – not only barriers between the sexes and classes but between cultures and faiths, town and country, north and south.

Moving away

Many Northern writers have gone to seek fortune elsewhere. Manchester-born Anthony Burgess left at age 23 and returned only occasionally, yet the city’s accents and landmarks pervade his work.

Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar tells the story of Billy Fisher, a teenager from the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, who is unable to stop lying, especially to his three girlfriends. Billy indulges in fantasies and dreams of life in London as a comedy writer. But when his opportunity to leave comes, he cannot go through with it – unlike Waterhouse, who left Leeds for a successful career as playwright, novelist and newspaper columnist.

London dominated professional playing and teaching of classical music, but Manchester was also a leading centre after the Hallé orchestra was founded in 1857, playing host to Northern-born composers including Sheffield’s William Sterndale Bennett and Bradford’s Frederick Delius.

Meanwhile, the 20th century produced Oldham’s William Walton, Accrington’s Harrison Birtwhistle, and Manchester’s Peter Maxwell Davies. Kathleen Ferrier, daughter of a Lancashire village school teacher, won many amateur piano competitions while working as a telephonist for the General Post Office, before taking up singing seriously.

And so the North’s strength lay in amateur music-making, notably brass bands and choirs that emerged from the 1830s and 1840s. Brass bands were overwhelmingly male and working class. Choral societies were mostly mixed-voice, offering opportunities to women.

Pop goes the North

The North’s big moment in pop music came in the early 1960s with Merseybeat, notably The Beatles but also Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Searchers and Cilla Black. The Manchester music scene took off in the late 1970s with Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths and The Stone Roses.

As in other spheres, many northern-born artists moved south to further their careers. George Stubbs worked in his native Liverpool and in York before spending 18 months in Lincolnshire dissecting horses, after which he moved to London.

One artist who stayed local was Thomas Bewick, wood-engraver and natural history author, who was born in Northumberland and worked in Newcastle. He is best known for A History of British Birds and illustrated editions of Aesop’s Fables.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, painter of almost photographic nocturnal urban scenes, was based largely in his native Leeds. Art was a male-dominated world, yet Manchester-born Annie Swinnerton, best known for her portraits and symbolist works, became the first female associate member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Meanwhile, sculptor Henry Moore was born in Castleford and trained at Leeds School of Art before moving south. The Yorkshire hills were a lifelong influence on the undulating form of his reclining figures. His friend Barbara Hepworth, born in Wakefield, was similarly inspired.

L.S. Lowry, who lived for years in Salford, remains the artist most closely associated with the north. “My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody had seriously done it,” he said. Incredibly, nobody had. He represented it so successfully that the world came to see the north through the prism of his paintings, which did not please everyone.

David Hockney, born in Bradford and educated at Bradford College of Art, moved to Los Angeles in 1964, where he made paintings of naked young men in swimming pools. These portrayed a world of leisure, bright light and sexual openness, contrasting with Britain’s greyness and repression, though a darkness lay behind them: the young men may have been waiting to be drafted for service in Vietnam.

When Hockney’s mother Laura first visited him in Beverly Hills, after two or three days out on the patio she delivered her verdict on his lifestyle: “It’s strange – all this lovely weather and yet you never see any washing out.”

Northern England’s writers, artists and musicians are a talented bunch. How they stack up against engineers is harder to evaluate, but they cannot be written off as a minor school.

By Brian Groom

Brian Groom is the author of Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day (HarperNorth)

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