A STRIKING Norman Cornish self-portrait that housed a secret is being donated to Northumbria University Gallery.

The oil painting by the 'Pitman Painter', who called Spennymoor home, was recently sold for £13,500 at auction, after frenzied bidding broke out at Anderson & Garland’s Newcastle saleroom, following the discovery of a concealed second picture on the back.

The generous art collector who bought the work says: “I was over the moon to buy the painting and it is in the best place now to be appreciated by the public.

“It’s already been stuck in a house for 50 years so I didn’t want to just put it on my wall. I would like it to be part of a bigger collection.”

The dashing early self-portrait of Norman, at the age of 31, had originally been priced at between £4,000 and £7,000 at the sale held of Modern and Contemporary art on January 20.

Due to the great interest in the sale of the painting, a potential buyer had asked to see the picture out of its frame. It was then that auctioneers discovered a portrait of a lady on the back, which turned out to be Norman’s earliest-known painting of his wife Sarah.

Fortunately Norman’s son John Cornish, was on hand to reveal the identity of the hidden portrait, saying: “I officially confirm that this is my mother.”

The declaration led to a nailbiting auction with bidding opening at £3,000 and rising in £100 increments over 15 minutes as a dealer bidding online and a local collector battled for the ‘two-in-one’ painting.

The beautiful oil-on-board, dating to circa 1950, finally sold at £13,500, which is the second highest price paid for one of Norman’s paintings at auction.

The buyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has given the painting on a long-term loan to University Gallery, where it will go on show in April.

He told the gallery: “The portrait was part of a group for sale and it was this one which kept sticking in my mind. I really liked it, as it is one of the earliest self-portraits Cornish did.

“I have left commission bids on many Cornish paintings, but have only bought one before now. I left a commission bid of £5,500 on the self-portrait and asked my brother to go along to the auction on my behalf.”

The self-portrait came from the collection of Ivan Geffen, a former solicitor for the National Union of Mineworkers, who died in 2013.

The painting has undergone a cleaning and restoration process and will be on display from April 10.