TODAY would have been the 100th birthday of a North-East treasure who famously left the pit with chronic back pain and blossomed into the County Durham Rembrandt.

That is not a description used lightly but, as the years pass, there is momentum behind the experts’ view that Norman Cornish will come to be remembered alongside the truly great artists.

The Northern Echo has always been a passionate supporter and, on the day of Norman’s funeral – August 14, 2014 – it was important that we marked the occasion in a special way.

As the paper’s editor at the time, it struck me that his death was a significant moment in the region’s cultural history. It not only marked the passing of a wonderful artist, but of a way of life.

The decision was, therefore, taken to honour the great man by “wrapping” that day’s paper in a Cornish masterpiece. Even the sports editor didn’t kick up too much of a fuss at losing the back page for the day.

It seemed the right thing to do to give Norman’s family the choice of which painting to use. With so many wonderful works in his collection, it may also have been a case of passing the buck because we simply found the decision too difficult.

The family – son John, daughter Ann, and son-in-law Mike Thornton – opted for “Kids in Snow – Mount Pleasant”.

There are decisions I made during my 18 years as editor that I regret, and others than I’m proud of. Recognising Norman in that way, on the day of his funeral, falls into the latter category. That said,  I recall being disappointed on the day of publication that the reproduction on newsprint hadn’t done justice to the colours of the vivid snow scene at the back of Salvin Street in Norman’s beloved home town of Spennymoor.

The painting is one of 64 pieces which went on display at The Bowes Museum on Saturday in an exhibition that should not be missed – entitled “Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection”.

It was a privilege to meet John and Mike ahead of the exhibition’s opening last week and to ask why the family had chosen Kids in Snow – Mount Pleasant. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but we just felt it was so typical of his style and how he captured life in that era,” explained Mike. “There are 41 characters in the painting and it’s brimming with life – it just seemed right.”

John, who now lives in Chester-le-Street, remembers buying a “shop-load” of copies from his local newsagent. “I couldn’t have imagined a better tribute to my father’s work than for County Durham’s paper to honour him like that,” he said. “Those copies are still treasured by the family and will be passed through the generations.”

The paintings for the definitive collection – the biggest and most important of several exhibitions taking place during the centenary year – have been brought together from public and private collections around the country. Individual owners lucky enough to have bought a Norman Cornish painting have also contributed to the exhibition.

Extensive media interest has come from way beyond the County Durham heartlands of The Northern Echo, including a preview on BBC Radio 4. Jean Brown, Associate Professor of Arts at Northumbria University, told the programme: “Norman Cornish is a much under-rated artist. He should stand side by side with Rembrandt, Degas, and Lautrec.”

One day, Norman…one day.

NORMAN read The Northern Echo every day and a lunchtime never passed without him tackling the crossword.

Indeed, the initial sketches for his famous “Gala Day” mural – commissioned for the opening of Durham County Hall in 1964 – were made on the back of a copy of The Northern Echo.

The trouble was that the paper was sent by mistake to Eddie’s Fish Shop, in Spennymoor, and Norman had to rush down and reclaim the sketches before they were wrapped round the next day’s haddock and chips.

“We’ve never been able to find those particular sketches,” lamented John.

So, if anyone has an old edition of The Northern Echo, with some sketches on the back – possibly smelling of salt and vinegar – they might well have a valuable work of art on their hands.

JOHN also recalled the time Norman was down the pub with pal Duncan Nicholson.

When a fella propped himself up at the bar, Norman whipped out his pen and knocked off a quick sketch.

“I want to buy that!” declared Duncan, slapping a fiver on the bar.

From the moment, the “model” took his position by the beer pumps, to the price being paid, is said to have taken 15 seconds – almost certainly the fastest art deal in history.

DURING another sketching episode down the pub, another drinker sagely observed: “Norman, you always start with now, but you end up with summat.”

THE last word goes to Norman himself in the quote used on his funeral day edition of The Northern Echo: “This special world of mine is constantly changing and many of the people who inhabited it are no longer with us. Many of the places that once made up that world have also passed into time. The local collieries have gone too, together with the pit road. However, in my memory, and I hope in my paintings, they live on.”

  • Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection - The Bowes Museum, until February 23.