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Artists capture drinkers of a past era in gallery at the Northumbria University Gallery

An exhibition has brought together the work of pitman artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness


Caps on heads and pints in hands, they were once common to every working men’s pub across the North East.

But the drinkers sketched by Norman Cornish for a TV programme in 1959 were known to the artist who died in August, just months short of his 95th birthday.

The captions tell us they were Percy Smith, Geordie Kell, Tommy Thompson and Dougy Berriman. Some of the men in pubs including the Albert, the Cambridge, the Wheatsheaf and the Bridge are identified by their nicknames – Buller, Yorky, Noddles and The Tomato Man.

The sketches feature in a free public exhibition which has just opened at the Northumbria University Gallery, on Newcastle’s Sandyford Road.

The exhibition features the work of two men who were miners but also gifted and dedicated artists.

Tom McGuinness, who was born in Witton Park in 1926 and died in 2006, is represented by a series of stunning oil paintings featuring County Durham pit communities and working conditions underground.

It is the first major exhibition for either artist since their death and the first for many years to bring them together.

In life, according to gallery director Mara-Helen Wood, the pair were friends. Both had learned about art and exhibited at the Spennymoor Settlement, set up in 1931 to provide recreation and education for miners.

But they were a generation apart and tended to go their own way artistically. While the Northumbria gallery has represented the interests of Cornish, McGuinness is championed by retired GP Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, from Bishop Auckland, who have made art by pitmen a field of specialist study.

Mara said the Cornish sketches in the exhibition were commissioned by Tyne Tees TV for its first network programme, a documentary about coal called The Burning Question.

“Lew Lewenhak, the producer, asked Norman to go out and make lots of interesting heads for the programme,” she explained.

“He would come home from his shift at the pit and say to Sarah (his wife), ‘I suppose I’d better go out to work’... and then head for the pub to find interesting heads.”

Mara found many of the resulting sketches when sifting through the work filed away in Norman’s studio, at home in Spennymoor, after his death.

Now they can be seen on the gallery walls, sparking memories for many of the way pubs used to be and, for some, of individuals they used to see across the bar or were even related to.

Mara says Norman would often take his favourite sketches and incorporate them, anonymously, into his bigger paintings.

The exhibition, which runs until January 23, will give people the chance to put names to some of the faces in those big pictures.

It will also, through Tom McGuinness’s work, provide an insight into the working lives of many of those men sketched by Norman Cornish in the pubs of Spennymoor.


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