Published on November 14th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


Portrait of the pint-er

Alastair Gilmour pays tribute to a painter of pubs, pints, pits and people

Norman Cornish has been regarded widely as one of the North East’s most expressive recorders of human life. Norman, who died aged 94 in the summer – and who is being honoured with an exhibition this month – was a pitman turned painter, first setting off to work down a coal mine near his home in Spennymoor, County Durham, in 1934, aged 14.

In 1966, after 33 years of coal mining, he decided to live solely by painting, exhibited countless times, and carried out numerous commissions, notably the huge painting that hung in Scottish & Newcastle’s Tyne Brewery visitor centre and one depicting the Miners’ Gala at County Hall, Durham.

Beer drinkers and domino players, whether captured in black ink or an earth-coloured palette, were a constant source of inspiration and Norman Cornish well understood the pleasurable invitation that lies in the freshly-pulled pint after a hard, hot and dirty shift under ground – because he’d been there.

He said: “I was fascinated by the men standing at the bar drinking and talking, or sitting playing dominoes. They all have their little idiosyncrasies; my hand can’t not draw them. It’s all to do with being alive.

“I’d have a sketchbook in my pocket and I’d have to draw it if I saw it – men with fags and cloth caps, nods and winks, women roaring with laughter, skinny men, large women, men with pipes and men reading newspapers. It’s an itch I have to scratch.”
One of the greatest tributes paid to Norman Cornish was perhaps the most innocent. He had been sketching in a pub, unaware that an old miner had been observing his quick, accurate pen strokes. He was approached by his former workmate who said: “Does thoo naa I’ve watched you and that thoo always starts wi’ nowt and ends up wi’ something.”

*The Many Faces of Cornish, Northumbria University Gallery, Sandyford Road, Newcastle NE1 8ST, November 7-January 2 2015. Details: 0191 227 4424.

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Alastair Gilmour

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