A farewell to Norman Cornish - painter of all the pitmen's people

A farewell to the painter of all the pitmen's people

A farewell to the painter of all the pitmen's people

First published in News
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The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Deputy Editor

The funeral of Norman Cornish, the last of the pitman painters, was held today (Tuesday, August 12). Chris Lloyd paints the scene. 

"IT is appropriate, really, that I should be standing beside this picture window," said Michael Chaplin, as he began his tribute at Norman Cornish's funeral today.

With a flourish from his arm, he gestured through the three huge windows in Durham Crematorium to the pastoral scene outside that was begging for someone to paint it.

Up high, there was a watercolourist's sky, with bright white clouds scurrying across the deep blue. In the distance was a screen of trees billowing in the breeze – they would have required a whole palate of colours to capture them, from silver birch to copper beech.

In the foreground, swallows swooped purposefully, flashing their white bellies, white pretty butterflies danced haphazardly, not quite sure where they were being blown.

And beneath them all was a wide, green lawn, peppered with vivid yellow buttercups. They looked like the little explosions of colour that Mr Cornish saw on his first day of work as a 14-year-old down Dean and Chapter Colliery in Ferryhill. The miners trudged up the grey gantry in the first light of day in front of him, but when he painted their lamps they became brilliant orange fireflies buzzing around them.

His painting, Pithead, was on the cover of today's order of service. It was a humanist service full of gratitude for the life of Mr Cornish, from Spennymoor, who died on Friday aged 94, the last of the pitman painters.

The service was a private affair, for family and friends – Sarah, his widow, was unable to be there, but she is bearing up. A public celebration of his life will be held on September 14 in Spennymoor in the form of a lecture and exhibition.

The centre-piece of today's service was the tribute by Mr Chaplin, the son of the writer Sid, who recalled his first encounter with Mr Cornish when he was about eight in the 1950s. Mr Chaplin's parents had visited Norman and Sarah in Bishops Close Street for "a substantial and tasty tea and a bit craik", so the young lad scarpered out the front to play football. Inevitably, his keepy-uppies ended with him volleying the ball through a neighbour's parlour window.

All the adults converged to yell, apart from Mr Cornish, who instead measured the broken pane, got some glass from a picture frame "and carefully fitted and puttied it", said Mr Chaplin.

"I watched his big hands as he worked, slowly and steadily, in the certain knowledge it would turn out alright."

Window glazed, Mr Cornish handed back the football, saying: "Better play in the back lane this time, son."

After the tribute came the committal, accompanied by The Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly, and a time for thought and prayer.

My mind drifted back to the last time I interviewed Mr Cornish in his upstairs studio, amid higgledy-piggledy piles of pictures. I remembered his brushes neatly planted in jugs, the white-haired tufts of their bristles poking up like flowerheads, and I remembered his tubes of paint, squeezed like toothpaste, lined up in colour co-ordinated order.

I remembered the noise of the painting of Trimdon Grange on his easel, with the whoosh of the steam from the railway engine engulfing the men as they crossed the bridge while, at the margins, the children shrieked as they booled a hoop, causing their dogs to bark at their heels in excitement.

I remembered his beer – the best beer of all in his busy bar scenes, beer so real you could drink it, wipe the head from your upper lip and then watch as the froth slowly slid down the inside of the glass.

And I remembered the "substantial and tasty tea" that Sarah had silently rustled up out of nowhere as her husband held forth.

The humanist celebrant, Ray Wood, brought my reverie to an end, and closed the service with the same quote that I had used to close my article. It was a quote Mr Cornish had probably given thousands of times over the years to all who sought to understand his work.

"I don't mind being called a mining artist, but I have been a professional artist almost twice as long as I was a miner," he said. "I paint human beings, the kids playing with skippy ropes, the boys with snowballs – all people. I paint their hopes and their shapes and their attitudes and the feelings I have when I look at them.

"In fact, the images all come from the people. They create them and I paint them. I am just the medium."

He was not just a pitman painter, but a painter of all the pitmen's people, whether they were above ground or below it. Their way of life has now gone, like the artist himself, but, as Michael Chaplin said, their days in the Durham coalfield live on in Mr Cornish's works "so clear and quite timeless".

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