THE centenary of the birth of one of the North-East's most famous painters is set to be celebrated with a series of tributes in and around the home town he loved.

The legacy of pitman painter, Norman Cornish, will live on in Spennymoor, a place which provided a lifetime of inspiration for the late artist.

Family members and dignitaries gathered in the town yesterday to honour Cornish, who became a miner aged 14 and made the leap to full-time artist when he was 47 - finding his subjects in the lives of the community around him.

A backlit archway housing key works by the artist was unveiled in the town's John Kitson Archway which has been transformed by Ian Wright, of Rufus Creative Design, the company behind the refurbishment plan.

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Cornish's children, John and Ann were present at the unveiling by Spennymoor Town Council.

Mr Cornish described the tribute as "exceptional" and said the whole family was "really proud" of Cornish and the tribute.

He said: "My father did not need to go round the world or to fancy places - he found the worth in the people here."

Colin Ranson, facilities manager at Spennymoor Town Council, said: We are delighted with it and it came about from working with the family and councillors. It's about delivering a vision to create some form of legacy for Norman."

The archway is also the starting point for a new walking trail - a one-and-a-half-mile route around the town.

The Norman Cornish Trail follows in the artist's footsteps and allows visitors to learn more about the places of some of his most iconic works.

Walkers can also use an app to follow the trail.

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The family were also joined by community groups to launch two of a series of new exhibitions.

Rosa Street Primary School, Tudhoe and Spennymoor Local History Society and Spennymoor Settlement - known as The Pitman’s Academy as lots of artists such as Norman developed their skills there - selected pieces of one of the exhibitions at the Mining Art Gallery, in Bishop Auckland.

Among them are classic Norman Cornish scenes from his home town and reflecting colliery life, along with candid sketches of his family.

Curator Angela Thomas said: “It was really important to go back to the Spennymoor community for this exhibition. Norman found so much inspiration throughout his life in and around Spennymoor, it was really important to explore how the work still resonates with the community.”

Mr Cornish said: “Father didn’t court publicity at all, he was quite reserved but he wanted his pictures to stand the test of time.

“What is happening now is a real good testament to that.”

Norman’s daughter-in-law, John’s wife, Dorothy Cornish said: “I think he’d had been quietly proud. He wasn’t a boastful man but he would feel great pride because his legacy in enduring.”

The Spennymoor exhibition tells the story of Cornish’s biggest work, a 30ft Durham Miners Gala mural at County Hall, Durham.

Mr Cornish said: “The story of the painting of that mural, a lot of preparatory work, its production needed telling.

“He had to take a year of unpaid leave and for a man with two children and not much money it was a risk, mother was very supportive and he did get a commission for it but it was still a big risk.”

Mr Cornish recalls he and sister Ann crawling under a third-scale version of the mural, which stretched across the landing of their two-up-two-down house as Mr Cornish worked on it, to get to bed on an evening. The commission was so secretive that trusted visitors to the house had a secret knock to be allowed over the doorstep.

Mayor of Spennymoor, Clive Maddison, called the tributes "iconic" and said he hoped they would draw in visitors to the area.

Mr Cornish added: “He would have approved of the benefits to Spennymoor, it is very forward thinking to use father’s artwork as a vehicle to promote the area and towards the future development of the town. He would have liked that, I’m sure.”

Cornish's son-in-law Mike Thornton said: “He would often ask the question- how do you think I’ll be remembered? Sometimes he thought he would be remembered with a statue or something similar. I said ‘Norman, you will be remember through your work for years to come'. He was quite relieved with that.”

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