The Bowes Museum opens the first major retrospective of the work of Norman Cornish
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The Bowes Museum opens the first major retrospective of the work of Norman Cornish
Norman Cornish’s work has an enduring popularity and leaves a wonderful legacy.

COUNTY DURHAM.- The Bowes Museum is holding the first major retrospective by one of the most loved artists from the North East of England in the 20th Century; Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection, opening almost 100 years to the day after the artists birth in Spennymoor.

Visitors to the Barnard Castle based Museum will be able to see more than 60 works including, pastels, charcoals and oil paintings from both public and private collections, some of which are previously unseen.

Norman Cornish’s work has an enduring popularity and leaves a wonderful legacy - an immediate and accessible social documentary of a bygone era. There can be few, if any, who have contributed more to the area’s artistic and cultural identity.

Aged 14, he was obliged to begin life as a miner – a career which was to span four decades. As his father and grandfather had both been miners before him, there was an inevitability Cornish would follow in their footsteps.

On his first day at the colliery, he recalled: “The men climbed the steep steps of the gantry; their swaying oil lamps looked like fireflies. Then I saw a mass of railings, steps, girders and wires. I thought it looked like a great, steel spider’s web.”

Around that time, his artistic ability found fulfilment when he joined the Sketching Club at the Spennymoor Settlement. The Warden, Bill Farrell, advised the young boy to “paint what you know”. His inspiration did come from the world he knew; his own ‘slice of life’.

His honest depictions of miners reflect the harsh working environment – the claustrophobic space of the seams where men and pit ponies toiled. He dubbed them “industrial gladiators”.

A small town in the Durham Coalfield may seem an unlikely source of inspiration. But for the artist, this was not a constraint, his work reflects the core features of mining communities: the pit, the pub and the sociability of street life; with its chip van horse-drawn carts, miners at leisure, women in wrap-around pinnies gossiping and children playing.

Norman Cornish painted many versions of the pit road. It was a road he walked for some 30 years or more, so naturally it became a significant part of his life. With telegraph poles looming like crucifixes, characters struggle along reminiscent of a kind of Calvary scene. To watch the man ahead plodding resignedly was a subject he felt demanded to be drawn again and again.

He was a magnificent chronicler of everyday life, recording the social environment and industrial landscape in which he lived and worked; painting the community he knew with integrity. The streets, people and landscape that surrounded him were a constant source of inspiration. His drawings demonstrate his skill in capturing not just a likeness but a complete attitude.

“I made drawings of pub interiors in days past because I was fascinated by the men standing at the bar, drinking and talking or sitting playing dominoes. I was attracted by the wonderful shapes they made in their various attitudes.” Norman Cornish

Alongside these mining community chronicles, the retrospective includes some of his commissions which ranged from portraits and industrial scenes to a visit to Paris for Tyne Tees Television where he was encouraged by the producer to critically appraise the art of the French capital through the eyes of the Northern artist. Some of his industrial commissions included the Port of Tyne Authority’s request for him to capture in oils their “Roll-on, Roll-off” facility at North Shields and The River Pageant, commemorating 900 years of Newcastle’s history, as well as British Oxygen’s commission to depict industrial scenes at its Birtley site near Gateshead. The first two of these are being seen by the public for the first time.

Broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg, whose first TV documentary for BBC Monitor in 1963,’Two Border Artists’ (the other was Sheila Fell), focused on the work of Norman, said in his Foreword to Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks, “he stands as a magnificent Chronicler of one of the most important passages in English history.

“The paintings and drawing he brings to us of the hard-lived lives of a community which defied the odds will be enduring. He has not only preserved a life lived by millions of people in this country and others around the world, he has given it significance and permanence that only a real artist can achieve.”

Dr Howard Coutts, from The Bowes Museum, said: “We are truly honoured to be holding this first major retrospective of works by Norman Cornish. His chronicles of life in a bygone era are captivating and draw you into the scene that he’s portraying.”

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