Published on November 5th, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour


Pens, paints and pint pots

The North East celebrates the centenary year of one of its most talented sons, writes Alastair Gilmour

An extraordinary County Durham artist’s life and work is being laid before us in a series of exhibitions around the North East. Norman Cornish’s artistic output and his outlook on life contributes enormously to our regional identity, depicting everyday life in a mining community – realistic images of working-class life that highlight domesticity and socialising in heroic terms.

As a miner himself for some 33 years, Spennymoor-born Norman Cornish truly understood his subject matter and always remained loyal to his working-class roots. His pub, social club and street scenes reveal a warm and collective community.

“Spennymoor has all that an artist needs in order to depict humanity,” he said of his home town; a place that became his muse.

Norman Cornish died in 2014 and this year has seen the centenary of his birth. His work on show throughout the region provides an opportunity to indulge in nostalgia for a world which has nowadays all but vanished and offers us a sense of pride in the industrial heritage of our region.

Norman had already established a significant artistic career when he finally left the pit in 1966 and became a full-time professional artist, exhibiting across the region at The Stone Gallery, Newcastle, and University of Northumbria Gallery, as well as in London and across the north with contemporaries such as LS Lowry and Sheila Fell.

Fully immersed in his community, he found beauty in the life and shapes of the everyday. His drawings of characters in bars, for instance, demonstrate his supreme skill in capturing not just a likeness but a complete attitude. His artwork is rich in emotion, evoking a strong attachment for people – the images almost reaching out to invite the viewer in to his world.

Through his eye, hand and imagination we are offered a glimpse into the artist’s family life; miners labouring below ground or plodding resignedly along the pit road; headscarved women huddled in conversation; bar scenes showing men in flat caps with whippets at heel, playing dominoes or engaged in convivial conversation; studies of individual characters captured in a quick drawing and street life showing horse-drawn carts or children at play.

He would return to the theme of the pub and its characters throughout his life, such as the solitary drinker, pint in hand at the bar, captured quickly with a drawing in Flo-master pen and later re-created as an oil painting.

He said: “Pubs were marvellous places to practice drawing. I liked the attitude of the figures and also the big round lights.”

Norman Cornish also made many detailed drawings of the hand pulls, furnishings, pint glasses and posters to ensure accuracy in his work. The large oil paintings have carefully designed and precisely constructed compositions incorporating characters and details from his extensive collection of sketchbooks.

He was readily accepted into the community he chronicled despite his unusual activity of sketching in the pub. The beer in Cornish’s glass gave him the passport to be able to share, observe and engage with fellow workers without appearing as an outsider. Because he was able to “blend in” as he put it, this gave him the opportunity to produce so many character drawings of his subjects.

The Busy Bar, seen on these pages (with a detail on our cover) is an example of experiential art where we are welcomed into this comfortable world of conviviality. We feel at ease with the earthy tones, the amber glow of the beer and the smooth, curvilinear shapes of characters in conversation. The work radiates a strong sense of companionship, class solidarity and warmth

He said: “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 was genuine; he was living the life he painted and we feel that sense of community through his work. He found beauty in the life and shapes of everyday locations; he sketched real people offering us vivid views of their daily lives. His work combines unpretentious realism with nostalgia for a bygone era – work that is rich in emotion, celebrating our industrial heritage with humanity and warmth. 

There can be few people who have contributed more to the region’s artistic and cultural identity.

About the Author

Alastair Gilmour

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