Artist Norman Cornish died three years ago, but recognition of his work – and its increasing importance as a source of social history – has never been greater. Chris Lloyd investigates

THE walls of the studio are covered in posters advertising past exhibitions. An unfinished painting is secured on an easel, waiting for the artist to administer its last strokes, and other ideas that are nearing completion are propped against the furniture – big-bottomed men leaning on a bar while a dog sniffs their heels; a queue forming at Berriman’s chip van, and a woman mending, her head bowed as if in prayer.

A clutter of painter’s paraphernalia sprawls across the tabletops: boxes of Rowney charcoal, piles of Daler sketchbooks, containers of Flo-master pens, scatterings of inky papers, vases of brushes with their heads blooming like flowers, and lines of metal tubes of paint which have been squeezed into contorted shapes as the artist mined out their colours.

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In the middle of the studio – centre stage as if a spotlight should fall on it – is a stool. It is flecked and fingered with painty drips and smears, but it is empty.

Norman Cornish should be propped against it, wearing his splattered white apron and using all the clutter to compose a new painting that sings of the way County Durham life used to be.

Norman died three years ago, but there has never been greater interest in his work. His studio is on its way to Beamish Museum, but at the moment it is resting in Spennymoor Town Hall where it is the centrepiece of an exhibition of his paintings. His sketchbooks and correspondence are on their way to his archive at Northumbria University where they will be the subject of PhD research. His works are central to the new gallery of mining art that is opening this weekend in Bishop Auckland, and his family have just produced a lovely coffee table book showing how his scribblings and sketches evolved into fully formed works of art.

The cover of the new book is a new Cornish which was discovered rolled up in his wardrobe shortly before he died.

“It wasn’t quite finished, it wasn’t signed, it needed a little touching up,” says his son-in-law Mike Thornton. “He would grow tired of a picture…”

“…or he would reach a sticking point where he had to make a decision about something and he would put it aside,” says Norman’s daughter, Ann, picking up her husband’s train of thought, “and sometimes paintings just got left...”

“There were all sorts of things squirrelled away in that house,” says Norman’s son John, taking the conversation on. “There was a lot of unresolved work in wardrobes, in plan chests, in portfolios, so it was quite a journey of discovery...”

Plus, in the house in Whitworth Terrace in Spennymoor in which Norman and his wife Sarah lived since 1967, there were 269 sketchbooks.

“There were always haphazard piles of sketchbooks, but we didn’t realise just how many there were,” says Ann. “The creative process is never a tidy one.”

“He would write colour notes and thoughts about how a picture should be and then he would hear a quote from some of his friends and he’d write that down, too,” says John.

“He sketched on a range of surfaces – The Northern Echo was a favoured choice,” says Mike. “When in 1962, he was summoned to the bottom of the mineshaft to take a phone call telling him he’d been commissioned to do a mural for the new county hall in Durham, some of the early drawings for that were done on copies of the Echo.”

“He would use anything – the cardboard out of a new shirt, the backs of chocolate boxes,” says John.

This was because Norman was trying to capture the moment accurately before it evaporated, sketching it into his book using a Flo-master pen – an American invention in the 1950s which guaranteed a never-ending flow of black ink to the artist’s brush.

From his sketched notes, he would work up a full scene, his artistic flights of fancy pinned down by his draughtsman’s attention to detail.

“Sometimes he would get me to put his old coat on and I would have to lean against the mantelpiece to see how the coat folded or how it changed the shape of the trouser leg,” says John.

The result is a remarkably vivid record of the life of a Durham pit community – of hard work underground in dark, cramped spaces, but also of life lived to the full on the surface, of women gossiping, of children playing, of dogs barking, of pigeons circling, of men drinking, of beer sliding down the side of a glass.

“People keep bringing up that the next generation will not have a clue about the mining legacy, but he chronicled the era that is now rapidly disappearing,” says Ann.

“In a few years’ time, no one living will remember these things and so the paintings will stand as social history,” says John, “but I don’t think he would want to be remembered as a social historian.”

This, though, is the Cornish conundrum. Although his work brings the past back to life so vividly that you can smell the coal dust and taste the chips in Berriman’s van, he is more than just a chronicler. And although he is deeply rooted in the mining world in which he lived his whole life, he is more than just a… “Pitman painter,” says Mike, “is a label, with its alliteration, that he was never happy with, right from the 1950s and 1960s. It was like he was a sheep with two heads at the circus, and I don’t think it has done him any favours with the art establishment.”

He regarded being called a “pitman painter” as very patronising. It was as if he were a freak. Just because he left school at 14 to go straight down the Dean and Chapter Colliery at Ferryhill to dig coal, why did that mean he didn’t have the skills and talents of anyone who’d studied art at university?

Although his work is dominated by the pithead in the way that many County Durham lives were once dominated by the pit, it has many universal themes about the nature of industry, about care and compassion, about community, about beer in a glass.

“He was absorbed by shapes,” says John.

“He was absorbed by people,” says Mike. “He would say that people make the shapes and he was just the medium.”

“And he found beauty in what was deemed to be the very ordinary,” says John’s wife, Dorothy.

It was a biological accident that caused Norman Cornish to be born in County Durham; if he’d been born to a family of Hebridean fisherfolk or Yorkshire hillfarmers, he’d have recorded the universal themes that were to be found in their ways of life.

“He was an artist destined to happen and he just happened here, painting the people who lived here,” says Ann. “He brings out high emotion in people. They stand and cry looking at his pictures.

“He has been locally recognised but all over the world there are industrial communities in which his work will resonate.”

Says Mike: “He bypasses all the other arts movements and trends. He is up there with the best, and we want to gain for him the recognition he deserves.”

Behind the Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks is available for £35 (including post) from normancornish.com and for £30 from Spennymoor Town Hall and the Bishop Auckland Gallery of Mining Art. His studio is in the recently refreshed Coming Home exhibition in Spennymoor Town Hall, which is open Monday to Friday: 12 noon to 4pm, and Saturdays 10am to 2pm.