Collecting Cornish | Living North

Collecting Cornish


Norman Cornish artwork
Castlegate House Gallery in Cumbria has one of the country's most extensive collection of Norman Cornish artworks. We spoke to Steve Swallow, owner of the gallery, to learn about the collection

How did the gallery come about?
We’ve owned and ran the gallery now for five years. I’m one of those people who is a bit of an obsessive. My wife will testify. We got married in the early 90s and pretty soon afterwards I decided I didn’t want to go and buy framed prints from IKEA. I wanted to buy paintings that people had put part of themselves into. Even when we had no money I’d scratch around and try and work as much overtime as possible so we could go and buy something. I became really obsessive about contemporary and British 20th century art. Then I ended up working down in London and in late 2009 I was in the kitchen and said to my daughter who was eight at the time: ‘I’m just going to get some wood out of the garage.’ She turned around and said: ‘Do you mean gar-aaaage, daddy?’ And I turned to my wife and said: ‘That’s it: we’re moving back north.’

We seriously sat down with a bottle of wine that night and said: ‘What do we want to do?’ I wasn’t in a position to retire – I was just 40 or so. We put all the money we could to try and make this happen. Two years later, we found the gallery we wanted, one effectively open one day a week. It’s been like starting a new business, but one where we’re almost five years in now.

It’s an incredible collection of Norman Cornish works you have. What’s the connection?
For years before that we’d been fans of Norman’s work. When we purchased the gallery and kicked it off under our own steam in 2012, one of the first works we bought on the secondary market was a large oil painting by Norman, called The Bar, 1963. That we sold almost as quickly as we got it, and we started acquiring works by Norman and finding new homes for them. Within the first few months we came to the attention of the family who came to see us, and I think we’re nothing if not extremely enthusiastic, and they responded well to that and we responded well to them, and we got on well. About 18 months ago now we effectively took on the majority of the estate with the family, and have had complete and utter free rein to the entirety of the estate to choose to bring 40–50 works to the exhibition, and all but a small handful have never been seen before. 

It must’ve been a tough task to pick.
It’s a bit more daunting than you think, because this isn’t a one-off. We’re going to be working with Norman’s family now for probably the next 10-plus years. We have a plan, and that plan is to continue to bring Norman and Norman’s work to a much wider audience, a national audience, not just a North East audience. He was a chronicler of industrial Britain, a place that has disappeared. It’s a social history record. What you need to make sure is that you have a good cross-section of subjects, of sizes, and of mediums. In truth, there’s very little work that isn’t great. The majority of it is really good work; Norman wouldn’t have entertained anything else. But it’s important to make sure you don’t come out with just 40 great oil paintings. You need half a dozen great oil paintings, then some pastels, some sketches – a cross-section that can attract people who like different things and have different budgets.

What is it about Norman Cornish you’re so interested in?
I was brought up in Rochdale in the late 1960s, and there’s something very familiar about what he’s portraying there. It is capturing and chronicling a world that within one or two generations has pretty much disappeared. In the 1970s there were pubs you could cut the smoke with a knife; where your feet stuck to the floor near the bar; people would come in with their dogs. It’s capturing social history that’s rapidly disappearing that really struck us well before we even contemplated having a gallery.

Cornish at Castlegate runs from 16 September–7 October.

Published in: July 2017

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