“HIS gift,” says Dr Howard Coutts, curator of the Bowes Museum, “is finding poetry in the local scenery where most of us wouldn’t find it – we’d walk on past, we’d walk on through, but he can find it in the streets around him which is really quite remarkable.”

Norman Cornish was the poet of pit life, even though he was a painter. His images not only record what life looked like in a County Durham mining community – the pubs, the pigeons, the pinnies, the games the children played – but also what it felt like to be alive at that moment. You can feel the warmth of the friendship in the bar and the cold of the trudge through the snow to the colliery; you can smell the fish and chips cooking in Berriman’s steaming van, you can taste the beer froth as it rolls down the gleaming glass.

Dr Coutts is surrounded by Norman’s pictorial poems as they are hung on the walls of the Bowes Museum, ready for the first major respective exhibition of his work which opens today – just in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth, which falls on Monday.

“He is much more than a pitman painter,” says Dr Coutts. “He is a very talented artist who developed the atmospheric effect of the scenery around them.

“He’s like the French impressionists like Monet, who come back to certain motifs in their life – haystacks, railway stations, buildings – they come back to them and paint them time and time again under different conditions, in the dark, or sunrise or under the midday sun to produce a different picture of essentially the same scene.”

The Northern Echo: The Pit Road was a favourite scene for Norman Cornish.The Pit Road was a favourite scene for Norman Cornish.

Pit Road is one of those motifs that Norman, who died in 2014, repeatedly returned to. It was inspired by his daily walk to work, three miles along the railway line from his home in Spennymoor to the Dean and Chapter Colliery at Ferryhill.

He started at the pit at the age of 14, having left school on Christmas Eve 1933, as a datal lad – paid by the day. He was the eldest of six children and his father, also a miner, was temporarily out of work so any hopes he had of college or art school – he’d won his first art prize, half-a-penny, aged four on a pre-visit to King Street Primary School for sketching a lady’s boot – had to be put to one side as he needed to contribute to the family finances.

The Northern Echo:  Joe Hughes and “Tosser” Angus who tired of life in Whitworth Colliery and so joined the Territorial Army for a fortnight’s camping in Scarborough. But the Second World War broke out and, from Dunkirk to Sicily, they spent five years fighting in the DLI. Back home, Tosser liked a bet and was given a greyhound in lieu of a debt. In the DLI tradition, he named it Piper, after an instrument, and its winnings enabled him and his wife to go on holiday to Rome Joe Hughes and “Tosser” Angus who tired of life in Whitworth Colliery and so joined the Territorial Army for a fortnight’s camping in Scarborough. But the Second World War broke out and, from Dunkirk to Sicily, they spent five years fighting in the DLI. Back home, Tosser liked a bet and was given a greyhound in lieu of a debt. In the DLI tradition, he named it Piper, after an instrument, and its winnings enabled him and his wife to go on holiday to Rome

The Dean and Chapter, though, was known as “the butcher’s shop” because of its dubious safety record, and Norman was aware of that on the day he started. He told The Northern Echo in 2008: "The overman in his deep voice said 'you've just signed your death warrant, son'. Above the door as you went out of the lamp cabin onto the gantry was a big poster with a drawing of a cat, and it said: 'The cat has nine lives. You have one. Take care of it'.”

The Pit Road alludes to the dangers of life underground. Norman loved finding shapes in the higgledy-piggledy world around him, so amid the crazy angles of the fence posts, the electricity wires, the lights, the telegraph poles and the pitgear, he found a crucifix.

“As I walked to work at night on the pit road, I became intrigued by the lights of the colliery and distant towns,” he said. “I realised that the energy to make these lights was made by mankind. I also realised that mankind might have accidents in this activity, and the telegraph pole which looked like a crucifix seemed to remind me of this.”

Perhaps also the crucifix had something to do with his own artistic ambitions, sacrificed to a traditional Durham life down the pit.

But he found poetry down there. "That first day,” he said in 2008, “I went through the door and it was twilight. The gantry looked like a big steel spider's web, the pithead rearing above it was the spider, and the men with their orange oil lamps going over the gantry were like fireflies caught in the web and it was going to drop them down the big dark hole."

You could paint your own picture just from his description.

A year after starting work, Norman was allowed to join the sketching classes held at Spennymoor Settlement, an American-style institution set up to bring cultural and practical skills to depressed industrial communities. Gradually, he began to build a regional reputation as a part-time artist, exhibiting in Newcastle galleries.

In 1962, he received a £1,000 commission from Durham County Council to create a mining mural for the new Aykley Heads headquarters. Its success led him to the brink of a difficult decision: dare he quit the pit, and its regular income and guaranteed family house, and jump into full-time art?

By 1966, he was working in Tudhoe Park Drift Mine, and after 33 years of contorting his body into uncomfortable coalfaces, he was suffering from bad back pain. His wife Sarah, his rock, gave him the confidence that now was the time to make the leap…

He got art lecturing jobs in Sunderland and Durham, and began winning commissions, several of which are in the new exhibition, while his own work commanded a growing audience – in 1970, Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath bought two of his paintings, much to the wry amusement of the artist with socialist leanings.

As his reputation grew, so the world changed around him. By the time he was awarded an MBE in 2008, the collieries had closed. Durham had turned the tide, cleaned up its beaches and greened up its pitheaps.

This gives even greater value to Norman’s paintings. He not only chronicles the days of steam and smoke when there was a colliery in every County Durham field, but he enables us to time travel into their days, to experience their hopes and their fears, and even to smell their fish and chips and to taste their beer.

“An American friend visited me and asked ‘what has happened to all your little old men in flat caps?’,” says Dr Coutts. “People wear trainers today. They go to wine bars and coffeeshops rather than pubs and to that extent it is a vanished way of life, and then there are the other things that went with that way of life, like the sense of community which are maybe not so strong nowadays.

“Artists do best when they paint things that they know and love, and the sense of love of what he sees is very strong in what he paints.”

He is not just a painter of pit life but a poet of all life.

Norman Cornish – The Definitive Collection opens today at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, and runs until February 23. Admission is £5 for children and £14 for adults with family tickets available. Look out for the Your Street competition in which people are invited to send in photographs of their street. The best will win a framed print of Berriman’s chip van.

With many thanks to Norman's son, John, and his son-in-law, Mike Thornton, for their help