He was the artist whose work struck a chord with very many people across the North East, particularly if their families had been coalmining folk. These were Norman Cornish’s specialist subject matter throughout most of his 94 years.
Miners heading for the early morning shift in moonlight featured in some of his most ambitious and popular paintings, as did the same men propping up the bar in the evening, flat caps on their heads and whippets at their feet.
Norman had been a miner himself but he escaped – eventually – although not from Spennymoor, the County Durham town where he lived contentedly all his working life.
Unlike the pitmen painters from Ashington, made famous in a book and a play, Norman Cornish was no amateur. Although his fame was largely confined to the North East, where people identified so closely with his work, he became a very successful professional artist.
His work featured in many exhibitions, notably at the Northumbria University Gallery whose director, Mara-Helen Wood, knew it intimately, loved it and fiercely guarded the artist’s reputation.
Although best known for his paintings and sketches depicting coalmining – increasingly sought after by collectors as the last signs of the industry disappear from the landscape – the most recent exhibitions have featured the deft portraits he made of family members.
These pictures, showing domestic scenes such as his wife, Sarah, peeling vegetables and his children, Ann and John, lying on their tummies watching television, showed the tender side of Norman Cornish and an artist whose work could stand alongside the very best.
Posthumously, you can’t help but feel, his reputation will grow even outside the North East. This process, thanks to the relationship between the Northumbria University Gallery and the Kings Place galleries in London (also overseen by Mara), is probably already happening.
Norman Cornish was born in Spennymoor on November 18, 1919. In his memoir, A Slice of Life, published in 1989, he recalled the outside ‘nettie’, watching his dad play football at weekends in the cold and the clippy mat in front of his grandmother’s fire.
Norman, a bright lad, passed the 11-plus exam. A college education, however, was beyond the family pocket and at the age of 14 – Boxing Day, 1933 – he joined his dad on the payroll of the Dean and Chapter Colliery. Locals called it ‘The Butcher’s Shop’.
As Norman recalled in print: “I was to learn that the dangers of gas, stone falls, the darkness and the restricted spaces were all to shape these men into industrial gladiators – with strict codes of behaviour.”
Norman worked as a miner for 33 years and it was back trouble rather than his growing success as an artist which eventually prompted him, in 1966, to call it a day. He never regretted it and perhaps he should have done it sooner.
Always talented with pencils and paint (he won a school prize for drawing, earning him an old halfpenny), he joined the sketching club at the Spennymoor Settlement – an educational facility set up for working men during the Depression – when still a teenager.
He had a knack for capturing a mood or a moment with a flick of pencil on pad. In 1940 he entered a portrait of his sister, Ella, for a Northern counties art exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery. His first solo show came in 1946 at the People’s Theatre.
By the end of the 1950s he was exhibiting regularly at the Stone Gallery in Newcastle (where LS Lowry also showed his work) and designing NUM lodge banners. In 1962 he was commissioned to paint a mural for the new County Hall in Durham and in 1963 he became the subject of Melvyn Bragg’s first television documentary, for BBC arts programme Monitor.
Some foreign travel came his way. He was invited to be part of a cultural delegation to Romania in 1954 and in 1966 was taken to Paris for another documentary, Cornish in Paris.
But Norman Cornish was not one for getting his head turned by fame. He had strong views and could be forthright – even cantankerous – in expressing them.
In a piece for The Journal in 1970, interviewer Gordon Burn (who would go on to find success as an author, often probing the phenomenon of celebrity) described a bit of a spat in the Cornish home.
Noman had told him he was fed up to the back teeth with being called “the pitman painter”.
He railed: “I’m sick of being looked at like some sort of zoo animal or specimen. You know the sort of thing... out of the depths comes this bloke and paints his pictures.
“It assumes that a man who works in a mine is not up to writing or painting or playing music. But it simply isn’t true.”
I interviewed Norman a couple of times, the first at his home in Whitworth Terrace, Spennymoor, in 1989, when A Slice of LIfe came out to accompany an exhibition marking his 70th birthday.
I described him as “tall and straight-backed, young-looking for 70 and scholarly”.
But he was commanding, too.
A few minutes after welcoming me into his home, he waved me to the far end of his studio so I could get a good view of his “act”.
After leaving the room, he then made a shufling entrance, hands dangling, before slumping into a chair and grunting testily.
This was his impersonation of an old chap in one of his pictures who always entered the local pub in this fashion. “He wasn’t in very good fettle,” explained Norman, the expert people watcher.
He said there had never been any need for him to leave Spennymoor.
“I’ve got my subjects all around me – about 25,000 of them. The people of Spennymoor are the same variety or shape as people all over the world so why should I go and seek them elsewhere?”
He described himself, perhaps a litle disingenuously, as “an average person who just draws and feels very deeply about people”.
Average Spennymoor residents didn’t have to play host to 50 members of the Contemporary Art Society, up from London on a tour whose next stop was Durham Cathedral.
Neither could they say, as Norman did with just the hint of a boast: “I know there are works of mine in Yukon, Toronto and Tasmania.”
He could be funny, he could be dogmatic, he could even be a little intimidating. But on the subject of painting and his art, he was thoughtful and eloquent. He explained to me why there was more to art than simply recreating a scene.
“When you are drawing something, the sounds and smells are in your mind as well as what you are seeing,” he said. “That might sound odd, but there might be a dog in the street and although I can’t see it, it might bark and I’ll think, ‘Ah, a dog’, and in it goes.
“I feel that an artist doesn’t necessarily depict any one particular incident but he reflects a time. I think it is all right to paint memories of how things were as well as drawing things as they are.”
I finished up, back then, asking what turning 70 meant to him.
Norman reacted swiftly to a daft question: “It means I’m getting older.”
In his last years Norman’s health did start to fail. He died on August 1 and it is true to say the region has lost one of its giant personalities and achievers.
His paintings capture a vanishing – in many respects a vanished – landscape and way of life. But they are still with us and have merit far beyond the mere documenting of history.
The best of Norman Cornish’s paintings are, quite simply, great art.
You will find them in many of the serious art collections in this region and beyond and in the future, since this is often the way of things, their appearance in the auction house catalogues will cause even more of a flurry.