THE centrepiece of the Bowes Museum's new exhibition of Norman Cornish’s work is this magnificent painting, entitled Busy Bar.

It is a Spennymoor pub scene from the 1950s, painted a cross a 9ft canvas, and it was originally bought by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries. No one has ever painted a pint of beer like Norman Cornish: it looks like golden brown nectar, with a froth so light and bubbly that you can feel it on your upper lip. The way the light plays through the glasses standing on the polished bartop is masterful. You can also feel the warmth of the men grouped convivially at the bar, gossiping, telling stories, swapping jokes and studying racing form. You can hear the laughter and you can see the delight dancing in the eyes of the man in the centre as his mates respond to his tall tale.

Norman himself always liked to talk about how his painting was composed. In the lovely, colourful book about his work entitled Behind the Scenes, which was published in 2017, he explains how the painting is divided in two by the big shape of the bar.

“It is not too obvious,” he said, “but it is two diagonals, one against the other. It’s rather like when you see someone playing a violin – you need a violin and you need a bow to cross in order to get music, and if you don’t do that, you don’t get a lot of music. It helps to create feeling. Of course, the actual men themselves created circular rhythms within the group. The circular rhythms knit altogether like a jersey.

“It is human drama based on gesture and attitude. It is monochromatic. The accent is on atmosphere which contrasts the earthy humanism with the mysterious glitter of the beer and the glasses.”

And is it reading too much into it if we note that there are two worlds in the painting? On one side of the bar are the life and laughs of the hubbub above ground, while beneath the bar is a hidden world, dark and quiet, hardly seen. Of course, all the men relaxing at the bar are miners, who earned their living in the dark underground.

The exhibition runs until February 23, 2020.