The largest and perhaps most unseen work by County Durham’s greatest artist showing a slice of the annual gala is on the move.

WHEN a panoramic and iconic work of art arrived at Durham’s new County Hall more than 50 years it was folded in the back of Jimmy Gill’s furniture delivery van; when it is moved over the next few days, a small army of conservators, curators and specialist transporters will be on hand to make sure it its safely loaded into an articulated lorry to be taken to its new home.

It is The Miners’ Gala Mural by Norman Cornish, more than 30ft long and nearly six feet high, which was commissioned in 1962 by Durham County Council to go as the centrepiece of the new County Hall at Aykley Heads.

The Northern Echo: The Miners’ Gala mural by Norman Cornish which is about to leave County Hall for its new home in Bishop AucklandThe Miners’ Gala mural by Norman Cornish which is about to leave County Hall for its new home in Bishop Auckland

But it was designed to be set against the sun, high up among the spiders in the entrance hall so that it could only be seen by people as they left.

“The new County Hall was a very prestigious location but the average visitor would walk in and walk out without seeing it,” says Norman’s son, John, who features in the painting. “In its new location, it will be at eye level and that will give it a new life.”

That new, permanent location is to be Bishop Auckland Town Hall where, if everything goes well, it is to be unveiled in early April.

The Northern Echo: Norman Cornish and the mural at Durham County HallNorman Cornish and the mural at Durham County Hall

The mural’s story begins in the early 1960s in a period of great change, when the county council was moving from its late Victorian darkly Gothic headquarters of Old Shire Hall to a new, square concrete-and-glass palace; when the coalmines of the Durham coalfield were becoming exhausted and the old communities were crumbling; when Mr Cornish was still a miner beholden to the pit for his wage and his family home but was under pressure to turn professional as an artist.

One day in 1962, he was working at the coalface at Mainsforth Colliery near Ferryhill when a message was taken to him saying he should go to the nearest underground telephone at once.

Covered in black dust, he approached the phone at the shaft bottom with some trepidation. Telephones only meant trouble in those days.

The Northern Echo: County Hall at Aykley Heads being built in March 1961County Hall at Aykley Heads being built in March 1961

But rather than saying something was wrong at home, the voice on the line offered him a commission for £1,000 to paint a mural typifying life in County Durham for the new County Hall.

After a difficult and sarcastic interview with the colliery manager – “so you fancy yourself as a bit of an artist, do you, but I’ve never heard of you”, it began – he was granted 12 months unpaid leave.

The Northern Echo: The letter Norman Cornish received telling him he would get unpaid leave to paint the muralThe letter Norman Cornish received telling him he would get unpaid leave to paint the mural

The Northern Echo: Builders assemble County Hall on September 8, 1961Builders assemble County Hall on September 8, 1961

It was still a big decision, swapping the family security of a regular pay cheque for the uncertainty of an artist’s life. But his agents at the Stone Gallery in Newcastle were pressing him to turn pro so that he would be taken seriously as an artist, and his wife, Sarah, offered him her support.

Still the miners at the coalface couldn’t believe he wasn’t on full pay, and they thought the unproductive painter should be the first go when more redundancies loomed.

“The county council didn’t want the regional media to know what was going on so it had to be done in secrecy,” says Mike Thornton, Norman’s son-in-law. “He was working in appalling conditions in a disused church hall without heating in the coldest winter for 40 years.”

The Northern Echo: Norman Cornish and the mural at Durham County HallNorman Cornish and the mural at Durham County Hall

He wore layers of coats and chipped icicles off the door. He only allowed in those who knew a secret knock.

The county council suggested four small themes should make up the mural: a trades union meeting, an underground scene, banners parading through the Durham streets and the gala at the racecourse.

After a few sketches, Mr Cornish decided it would be one big representation of the day that was central to county life: gala day.

But it is more than that.

“He envisaged the colliery banners as galleons on a sea of humanity,” says Mike. “There are younger people on the left, just moving off, and on the right there are the older people looking back, so it is the journey of life, and they all look at the central banner which bears the slogan ‘unity is strength’ which was central to the miners’ life.”

But there is more to it than just that.

The groups of people who are marching, dancing, playing and chatting have a rhythm, a swing, to them as they reel across the racecourse with the banners behind flapping in the wind – it is as if there’s music captured in the painting.

And there’s more to it than just that.

There’s six-year-old John in a bright green jumper, the youngest person in the composition so on the far left, sitting on his father’s shoulders, watching.

“I’m very proud of being in there,” says John. “He’s painted in some family friends – some of the characters are clearly known people, but sadly we never asked those questions.”

He remembers attending Spennymoor Town Band practices as his father studied the way instruments were handled and played, and then watched the marching formation to ensure absolute accuracy – trombonists always at the front otherwise there’d be a nasty accident up the oompah when the slide went forward.

Once the mural, which is 30ft 9ins long and 5ft 8ins high, was complete, Mr Cornish had to organise his own transport to County Hall, so he got Jimmy Gill to take it in his carpet van from his shop in Cheapside, Spennymoor. He couldn’t afford to pay Mr Gill so he gave him a painting, The Gantry, which was found in an attic in Spennymoor a few years ago.

The Northern Echo: The Gantry which Norman Cornish gave to furniture van driver Jimmy Gill in return for transporting the mural to County HallThe Gantry which Norman Cornish gave to furniture van driver Jimmy Gill in return for transporting the mural to County Hall

It was somehow hauled into place ready for the Duke of Edinburgh to open County Hall on October 14, 1963.

“Even amid Durham’s grey stone, it was a colourful occasion,” said the Echo. “The railway station where the Duke arrived was decorated with chrysanthemums and bunting, and the front of the Town Hall was draped in red, white and blue. Children among the 500 people there waved small Union Jacks.”

From the Town Hall, the Duke toured Durham university’s chemistry department where he happened upon a 24-year-old PhD student called John Cunningham who just happened to be the son of Alderman Andrew Cunningham, chairman of Durham County Council. Known as Jack, young Cunningham would serve in Tony Blair’s government of the 1990s.

From the university, the Duke went to County Hall where Mr Cunningham Snr invited him to open County Hall and presented him with the gift of a carpet, woven on looms in the city. “We hope you will think that we have excelled Sir Walter Raleigh,” said Ald Cunningham, presumably in reference to Sir Walter draping his expensive coat over a muddy puddle for Queen Elizabeth I to walk across.

“The largest crowd of the Durham visit lined the pathways to see the Duke fly his helicopter off to Billingham,” said the Echo as the visit neared its end. “When he got in the pilot’s seat and it was obvious he was going to pilot the machine, he got an extra cheer.”

The Echo reporter obviously didn’t look up and behind him because he overlooked Mr Cornish’s mural, much in the way decades of visitors to County Hall have failed fully to notice it. Aykley Heads is soon to be replaced by the new council offices, which have excited much comment, at The Sands, and so perhaps it is appropriate that in the 100th year of Mr Cornish’s birth, when exhibitions of his work have attracted record numbers of people, his masterpiece is moving to a location where more people will be able to get up close and personal with it.

“It has never been down since 1963, and when it is, we shall be able to see exactly how it was put together,” says Gillian Kirkbride, the council’s museums, heritage and collections manager. “This is very exciting because the mural has only ever been viewed up high but in its new home, people will be able to stand next to it.

“It is an iconic image which is very significant to the history of county hall and to the history of Durham.”