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How Norman Cornish's Art is Celebrated Across The Region

The Pit Road | Norman Cornish The Pit Road | Norman Cornish
November 2023
Reading time 5 Minutes

Norman Cornish's daughter and her husband have released a new book about the life and work of the late celebrated mining artist from Spennymoor

They tell Living North more about The Test of Time.

Norman Cornish was the last surviving member of the Pitman's Academy art school at the Spennymoor Settlement (a place for local people to express themselves in visual arts, performing arts and crafts). At the age of 14 he began work as a coal miner, then began creating artwork which depicts mining life. Norman’s work was already being exhibited, but it was only in 1966, at the age of 47, that Norman chose to leave the pits to become a professional painter. He soon became one of the most sought-after contemporary British artists of the 20th century.

It wouldn’t be impolite to say you’d often find Norman in the pub. There were 37 pubs in the Spennymoor area during Norman’s era and the men there (many of whom were his colleagues and friends, fondly referred to as marras in mining communities), were often the subject of his artwork. Norman drew and drew and drew – whether on scraps of paper, newspaper, The Radio Times or once on the back of a box of Cadbury’s chocolates, and he continued to draw and paint until he sadly passed away in 2014, at the age of 94. His work continues to be displayed and celebrated across the region, and the world.

Having authors and film crews around the family home in Spennymoor became a normal occurrence for Norman’s daughter Ann and her brother John. ‘I basically just got out of the way,’ Ann laughs. ‘It was a normal upbringing but I realise it was slightly different to other people’s. The furniture in the house on Bishops Close Street was very light and modern whereas most people had very dark and heavy Victorian furniture. Dad liked clean lines and light colours. My brother pointed out that as kids we didn’t have many photographs of us growing up, but instead we have drawings Dad drew of us at every stage. That is like an album in itself, but I’ll be honest, it was a bit of a chew at the time because every time you sat down to write, read, or do your hair you were there for an hour or more! Some people see my dad’s art as new work, some people see it as work that records a time gone by, but it’s stuff that’s been around all my life.’

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‘Having previously published the drawings that led to the art, now was the time to record the stories behind the art’

The Test of Time follows an earlier book Ann and her husband Mike published after Norman passed. That book was titled Behind the Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks. ‘It featured the drawings from Norman’s sketchbooks that people hadn’t seen, and there were nearly 300 of them,’ says Mike. ‘That was very well received and people still like to pick it up. The centenary was also hugely successful.’ To celebrate Norman’s centenary in 2019 a project was set up to reinforce the importance of his legacy and to bring his work to new audiences. His work is held in public and private collections throughout the UK and worldwide, and a celebratory exhibition of his work took place across six venues. Several illustrated lectures were delivered by the Cornish family, and a Norman Cornish Trail was created in Spennymoor – a 1.5 mile route to view the scenes he painted – which you can still follow today.

Ann and Mike were advised to start using social media to share more of Norman’s life and work. The couple have known each other since they were 17 so they had more than 50 years worth of stories and anecdotes to share. ‘There’s a lot of background I’ve acquired over the years without really ever putting it down on paper, so I started to write a [Facebook] post which went out each Monday morning, and all of a sudden there was people reading them from all over the country, and then of course all over the world,’ explains Mike. ‘This went on while exhibitions were running. I write the posts and Ann marks them (she’s a hard marker as well!).’ Almost two years later, Ann and Mike decided that putting all of these posts together would make an interesting book. ‘Having previously published the drawings that led to the art, now was the time to record the stories behind the art,’ Mike says.

The Paper Sellers The Paper Sellers

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The Test of Time begins with a foreword from former journalist, TV producer and writer Michael Chaplin. Michael’s father Sid was a contemporary of Norman Cornish at the Spennymoor Settlement and Sid and Norman worked together at Dean and Chapter Colliery. ‘We approached Michael and asked if he’d do the foreword for the book, then we decided to approach other leading writers who we’ve worked with in the past. Although I’ve written the book, the essays are from people who’ve been invited to write. They add a different level to the content – an in-depth appreciation if you like. There’s some really strong contributions.’

One such contribution came from portrait painter and fellow and former president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Andrew Festing. ‘He said “make sure you put in the work based around the family home” and when we were looking through the drawings Andrew made a wonderful quotation. He said his drawings are “as good as any other artist’s in history”. That’s a big statement and when he says that, you know there’s some depth to it. Other writers were invited and no one turned us down, and it all started to come together.’

Broadcaster, author and parliamentarian Melvyn Bragg did his first TV documentary on Norman in the 1960s. Filmed in black and white, Two Border Artists followed Norman and Sheila Fell, a Cumbrian artist. ‘Melvyn was just a young lad then but he was keen to get involved on this occasion, writing about the mining section, and we’re really grateful,’ says Mike. ’It counts a lot when you have very experienced and qualified authoritative figures to make a comment, it gives it an elevation that would be missing for a lot of people.’

Another well-known figure who spoke fondly not just of Norman’s work, but Norman as a person, was L. S. Lowry. The two first exhibited together in Carlisle in 1951 and they shared the same agent at The Stone Gallery in Newcastle. In 1964, Lowry added to his collection of paintings by purchasing a version of The Gantry by Norman, which cost 30 guineas (which would be over £2,000 today) in an exhibition at The Stone Gallery. ‘It’s good art and a number of people have commented on that. I think that’s probably why it’ll stand the test of time,’ says Mike. ‘One of my favourite quotations is from Norman himself when he was asked to do a speech. In the best speech I’ve ever heard, he said: “everything I have to say is hanging on the walls”.’

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Ann and Mike had access to work from throughout Norman’s career, and there are more than 400 in the book – sketches and paintings of his family and friends, self portraits, Spennymoor’s streets and of course the mining community. ‘Some of them are being presented for the first time because during the centenary celebrations (and this is another anecdotal gem), people were saying they owned a piece of Norman’s work, or their neighbour did, and some of those pieces were previously unseen,’ says Mike. ‘That was a big help. I think there’ll be a lot of interest in terms of nostalgia. Some pieces hadn’t really been discussed before, such as The Miners' Gala Mural and the Port of Tyne commissions, and when Tyne Tees Television took Norman to Paris for a week, so this was an opportunity to show those aspects of his work to the public too.’

‘He was always adamant and stuck to his guns,’ Ann adds. ‘He followed his own path really. He was influenced by people like Rembrandt but not to the extent where he started to copy them. He took on board things that were relevant to the art he did, and he never swayed from that. He always stayed true to what his intentions were. Art was something he had to do. He couldn’t not do it. He was driven to do it.’

The Busy Bar
The Busy Bar
Unseen work | Umbrellas Unseen work | Umbrellas

Keeping Norman’s legacy alive is important to his family, and while this new book will play a big part in that, heritage projects are in place for future generations to appreciate his art too. ‘There was a period in the late 50s and early 60s when a lot of local authorities were trying to pare down small mining villages in parts of Newcastle and Durham, and their surroundings, and people like Norman and other artists, writers and musicians were trying to hang on to them and preserve them for posterity,’ says Mike. ‘That showed in their work, and that’s where Beamish came in. Frank Atkinson was a man of vision and of course it’s one of the most famous museums in the country, and in Europe. There is some longevity with all of this. In 2014 I remember writing to Beamish and asking if they’d be interested in [Norman’s] studio. They came down and had a look and were interested in not only the studio but they said they’d take everything! There was still a lot of the 1950s furniture and what we didn’t know at the time was that they were working towards creating a 1950s town. That’s done now, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth popping by – there’s a 1950s chip shop, café, hairdressers and the Cornish family home, No. 2 Front Street, which they recreated.’

The family’s history is also being preserved within Northumbria University’s permanent collection. ‘In terms of legacy, if you can get it to a certain level where it has its own value and its own interest, it develops its own legs and moves forward itself,’ says Ann. ‘If we can get it to that stage, then we’ve done our job.’

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