A pitman’s working life was dark, dirty and dangerous but an artist’s eye will alight on beauty in the most unlikely places. In the case of ex-miner Norman Cornish, the keenness of his eye was matched by the easy skill with which he wielded a pencil or brush.
As Mara-Helen Wood pulls back the bubble wrap from each new Cornish picture destined for display in the latest exhibition of his work, we both hold our breath.
Mara doesn’t need telling that Cornish is good. She and her Northumbria University Gallery have represented his interests for more than 20 years, supervising his archive and organising a succession of exhibitions.
But the uncovering of each new picture is like a revelation to me. While I’ve seen a good deal of his work over the years and written lots about him too - even interviewed him in his house in Spennymoor on one memorable occasion - I’m finding new things to marvel at
Yes, he is good. But actually, he is very, very good.
This work by the North East’s own Old Master - Norman’s 94 now so qualifies in every sense - will surely stand the passage of time, and not just because of Mara’s devotion.
Norman Cornish, long known for his depictions of life at the pit, is much more than a pitman painter, an enthusiastic amateur given to the occasional fortuitous flourish.
Judging by the sheer amount of material emerging from the terraced home-cum-studio which he still shares with wife Sarah, it is clear that Norman Cornish could not not paint or sketch. It was an activity like breathing to him.
Through him the sights of his own very localised world were channelled into permanence.
Now we can all see what the sky looked like as miners made their way to work on the early shift; how they slouched as they slaked their thirst in the pubs afterwards; how the skyline was shaped by the infrustructure of coalmining, the wheels, wires and gantries.
But what the latest exhibition gives us is renewed insight into Cornish’s skills as a figurative artist. Delicate, tender portraits of his wife, parents and children show that there is much more to him than a recorder of industrial scenes. The sketches show a skilled and instinctive draughtsman at work, someone able to convey a day’s labour or a shared moment of intimacy in a single line.
One sketch, Mother Resting, is a beautiful little thing in its own right.
Mother, reclining on the sofa with her feet on a stool and her hands behind her head, is shown in what we sense is a well-earned moment of repose. But this is just the capture of the moment.
That it is to be worked up into something grander we can see from the artist’s scribbled reminders of the colours to be applied later - lemon yellow for the walls, lilac for Mother’s dress, ochre for the sofa.
Mara has been privileged to have access to Norman Cornish’s life’s work, or at least the artistic riches still contained within the family home.
She runs through some of her discoveries, the “beautiful” sketch of Sarah that was found in a rolled up piece of paper, the “very early, experimental paintings with paint laid on so thick that it could have been poster paint he was using”.
There are street scenes and snow scenes, scenes teeming with people and scenes - like the bleak but brilliant Dark Landscape - where only distant pinpricks of light hint at human life.
Mara has made another discovery. “Norman always talked about the pit road and the telegraph poles as being a bit like Calvary but we found this sketch in the archive. Actually there were a whole series of them with the telegraph poles resembling crosses.”
One of these sketches does indeed have a crucified Christ figure, evidence that the artist did once explore the similarities between industrial County Durham and an iconic Christian image.
The Lost World of Norman Cornish, including paintings, drawings, watercolours and pastels, opens on Friday at the University Gallery, Sandyford Road, and runs until January 31 next year before transferring to the Kings Place Gallery in London.
About two thirds of the work on display will be for sale and collectors will be keen to cast their eyes over the latest work. Others, like me, will have to content ourselves with seeing the contents of the bubble wrap enjoying pride of place on the gallery walls.
A Norman Cornish painting will set you back thousands - maybe £15,000 for a large painting and £7,000 for a smaller one - and that could prove a sound investment, whether you measure your return financially or in terms of pride and pleasure gained.
But if you haven’t got thousands, there’s a handsome new book, at a more affordable £24, to accompany the exhibition.
Published by Northumbria University Gallery, it is the kind of book that Norman has always fancied, according to Mara, with pages big enough for us to appreciate the tiny details of his work along with its grandeur. It contains 165 colour and 90 black and white illustrations, along with a perceptive essay by the art critic William Varley.
It should help to cement Norman Cornish’s reputation as one of the great recorders of northern life - up there, surely, with LS Lowry from across the Pennines.