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Two-sided Norman Cornish painting to go on public view at Northumbria University

A double painting by the late Norman Cornish has been given on long term loan to the gallery at Northumbria University

The Norman Cornish self-portrait and the painting of his wife Sarah which is on the reverse
The Norman Cornish self-portrait and the painting of his wife Sarah which is on the reverse

A bidding war broke out when a Norman Cornish painting was found to have a secret better half – and now gallery visitors can share in the excitement.

The Cornish self-portrait, which was revealed to have a portrait of the artist’s wife on the back, has been given on long-term loan to Northumbria University Gallery.

It was back in January that the self-portrait of the late artist, dating from 1950, was offered for sale at the Newcastle saleroom of auctioneers Anderson & Garland.

A price of between £4,000 and £7,000 was expected until one potential buyer asked to see the work out of its frame.

At this point sale staff noticed the second portrait, of a woman, on the reverse of the board.

Northumbria University gallery manager Mara Wood
Northumbria University gallery manager Mara Wood

Norman Cornish’s son, John, was present and able to confirm that it was his mother, Sarah.

The Spennymoor artist, who died last August at the age of 94, often sketched his wife but this was the earliest known painting of Sarah.

As a double header, the portrait suddenly became a lot more desirable to collectors of Cornish’s work.

After some intense bidding, the hammer fell on £13,500, the second highest sum paid for a Cornish painting at auction.

The buyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, was nevertheless happy to reflect on his nail-biting auction experience.

He said he had bought one Norman Cornish painting before and had been prepared initially to pay up to £5,500 for this particular work.

“The portrait was one of a group for sale and it was this one which kept sticking in my mind,” he said.

“I really liked it as it is one of the earliest self-portraits Cornish did.”

Northumbria University gallery manager Mara Wood with the painting of Norman Cornish's wife Sarah
Northumbria University gallery manager Mara Wood with the painting of Norman Cornish's wife Sarah

But when things heated up after the surprise revelation, he was in York having tea in a cafe with his wife. He had asked his brother to represent him at the auction.

When bidding reached £9,000, a phone call was allowed to see if the collector wished to stay in contention.

He recalled: “My brother rang me at that point, but then I got carried away.

“It is the most expensive painting I have ever bought. However, when the hammer fell I was over the moon. It was unbelievable.”

He said that with commission and charges, he actually parted company with £17,100.

“Would I spend that much money again on a painting? Maybe. I would rather buy a piece of art than a fancy car.”

But having acquired it, he decided he wanted it to be part of the large collection of Norman Cornish’s work held at the University Gallery.

Northumbria University gallery manager Mara Wood with the painting of Norman Cornish's wife Sarah
Northumbria University gallery manager Mara Wood with the painting of Norman Cornish's wife Sarah

“It is in the best place now to be appreciated by the public and it is important to hold important pieces of work in the North East,” he said.

Gallery director Mara-Helen Wood was delighted to take it into safe keeping.

“The self-portrait is a gem of a painting,” she said.

“It is stunning when you look at it closely. Considering he was young at the time, it is a very accomplished painting.

“It is also extremely important in filling a gap in the collection which Northumbria University looks after. This is a major piece in the timeline of works we have in the permanent collection.

The double-sided painting, previously owned by art collector and solicitor Ivan Geffen, who died in 2013, has been cleaned and will be on display at the gallery on Sandyford Road from April 10 – a rare example of a painting that is equally interesting from the front and the back.

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