NORMAN CORNISH worked underground in the Durham coalfield for 33 years, but at the age of 46 he took the bold decision to leave mining and become a professional artist.
It was a decision which could not be taken lightly, because he had a wife, Sarah, and children, Ann and John, to consider, but with Sarah’s full support Norman began a career as a full-time artist in 1966.
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BUSY BAR: Lots of Norman’s paintings are set in a public house with men, wearing caps, often accompanied by a skinny dog, drinking beer
It was a decision that led to him becoming one of the region’s most influential and sought-after artists of recent times. There can be few people, if any, who have contributed more to the region’s artistic and cultural identity than Norman Cornish.
So his sad passing seems to be the end of an era. Not only will he be greatly missed by his family, colleagues and friends, his death will be much lamented by the art world nationally — but even more so regionally, for Norman was essentially a man of the North-East.
Drawing and painting came naturally to him, they were the “itch that I have constantly to scratch”, as he so vividly described his compulsive artistic drive.
Norman was a great raconteur and a deep thinker such that over his 94 years he had developed and honed his own firmly held philosophy of life. It was a philosophy grounded on a sharp intellect, informed through wide reading, on lengthy debate with friends and workmates, on intuitive common sense but, above all, on the innate talent that would elevate him to the standing of an exceptional artist – that of the gift of observation.
Norman joined the Spennymoor Settlement Sketching Club, in the town where he was born in 1919 and where he died, when he was just 15.
Essentially self-taught, one of the very few lessons he took on board in his formative years came courtesy of a firm directive from the inspirational warden of the Settlement, Bill Farrell, who told him: “Draw what you see and paint what you know.”
Both Norman and his fellow miner and Settlement member, Tom McGuinness, took Bill Farrell at his word – Tom to paint the mines and the miners and Norman to depict the miner’s world.
He portrayed the unique mix of interdependence, camaraderie and mutual trust that were so characteristic of that world in direct contrast to the ever-present dangers inherent in the miners’ underground toil.
A WOMAN PEELING: A familiar Cornish theme, showing a Durham woman (in this case his wife, Sarah) about her work
Norman always adhered to Bill’s formula. His world did not have wide horizons.
His fellow Settlement member, the acclaimed writer Sid Chaplin, noted with affection “the narrow world of Norman Cornish” as one which encapsulated life in all its infinite variety – from the heroic grandeur of his colleagues walking stoically to the next shift at Ferryhill’s Dean and Chapter Colliery to the daily task of Sarah peeling potatoes; from the conviviality of men at the bar to children playing in the snow.
And Norman captured them all with a spontaneity and an honesty that only one who had experienced it could successfully portray.
This has caused him to be likened to Lawrence Stephen Lowry, who depicted industrial Salford. Indeed, the two artists exhibited together at the Stone Gallery, Newcastle in 1967. Even at that early exhibition, before either man had made his mark in the art world, it was apparent that any such comparison ended at their individual loyalty to their chosen community. Industrialisation condemned Lowry’s characters to an eternity of automatism, subsumed by their repetitive toil. They are deliberately depicted as devoid of emotion and shunning communication.
But Norman saw his world quite differently. His characters appear to have a life before, during and after the painting. They all had someone to talk to, and they invite the viewer to enter into their world and join in their conversations. The warmth emanating from Norman’s canvases is immediately engaging and elicits a response from the viewer.
Norman’s greatest talent was his draughtsmanship.
His recently discovered sketch-books and working drawings of family life that are currently on exhibition at Greenfields Community Art Centre, Newton Aycliffe, demonstrate his consummate skill in capturing not just a likeness but a complete attitude in an instantaneous sketch of just a few lines – a remarkable gift.
He was able to produce images rich in emotion, images that reach out from the canvas to us the viewer and welcome us in to his world. Norman belies any assumption that simply because a man has been a manual worker he cannot possibly display the finer appreciation for and nuances of life.
Norman always was primarily an artist; it was simply circumstances that took him and so many others of talent and ability down the mine. It was not determination or skill that was lacking for Norman’s generation, it was opportunity.
But Norman not only created his own opportunity, he literally seized it with both hands.
He has left us with a wonderful legacy, an immediately accessible social documentary of a time now gone by. With his uncomplicated technique and instant but durable appeal, Norman’s art will find its true level and there is little doubt that he will be recognised as one of England’s most important vernacular artists of recent times.
His work can currently be seen in the largest exhibition of coalfield art for almost half a century, Shafts of Light, at The Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle, until September 21. His work will also be on display, together with a major retrospective by Tom McGuinness, at the University of Northumbria Gallery, Newcastle, from November 7 to January 21.
We are proud and honoured to have been so closely associated with, and friends of, Norman Cornish – a quintessential man of the North-East.
Gillian Wales and Bob Mc- Manners are the authors of The Quintessential Cornish, which is currently sold out. The book accompanying their exhibition is still available, visit normancornish.com. Today’s funeral is a private, family occasion.
Explained: a picture of people and feelings
TODAY’S front page shows Spennymoor Snow, Mount Pleasant by Norman Cornish. It is looking along Upper Church Street towards Holy Innocent Church, a scene which has changed completely with all of the buildings, including the church, now demolished.
Norman once said of this painting: “The church crowns the whole painting and is symbolic of the whole area in a non-religious kind of feeling. Compositionally, take the roof of the row of terraces on the right and move left across the picture in a long diagonal – from one side to the other – if you look at the other side, another long diagonal – two diagonals across a rectangular theatre of operations.
The people playing echo the diagonal shapes. Look at the lady (in the doorway) with two little ones, one a bit bigger than the other. She has a hand reaching out and has obviously seen all of this activity with snowballs and she knows the little one is going to get hit, so she says bring that little one here. In the main part front right are older boys playing snowball fights and the little dog excited and barking. All sorts of little things (are) in the composition. All in all, I could just call it people and feelings.”