Published on December 6th, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour


Two men and a dog

To many people this painting sums up what artist and social commentator Norman Cornish was all about. The simple composition – two men and a dog at the bar of a Spennymoor, County Durham, pub – has bulk, style and flair. It also says a lot, even though the two men’s conversation is muffled into their pints. They’re pals, muckers and blood brothers and they shared an extraordinary life experience.

The painting is currently on show at a Norman Cornish centenary retrospective exhibition at Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, among many of the artist’s most recognisable works. 

John Cornish, Norman’s son, takes up the tale. He says: “Joe Hughes and Thomas (‘Toss’’) Angus were young lads living in Spennymoor. They worked at the local Whitworth Pit and decided to join the Territorial Army (TA). One of the attractions of being in the TA was the annual camp in Scarborough at the end of August. To them it must have seemed like a holiday – and they also got paid.

“In 1939 they went to the Scarborough camp, but both lads were immediately conscripted into the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) as full-time soldiers rather than remain as miners with ‘reserved occupations’’. They were full-time soldiers until about 1946 and had remarkable careers with the Army, seeing action in France and Belgium. They also saw action at the Dyle River canal complex in central Belgium before retreating to Dunkirk. 

“Joe and Thomas were amongst the last of the men to leave the Dunkirk beaches from C Company, 6th Battalion DLI. A large number of men from Spennymoor were either killed or taken prisoner, but they were amongst the few who got back. 

“The battalion was reformed and soon the pair were off to the Middle East where they subsequently saw action at Mareth, North Africa, where there was hand-to-hand fighting. Then they landed in Sicilly and fought in the battle of Primosole Bridge before being involved in more action as they moved up the east coast of Italy.

“Eventually, they were recalled to the UK for further training then landed on the beaches on D-Day 1. They fought in the allies advance and finished the war in Nijmegen in Holland.

“During the war, the new commander of the platoon, on inspecting the remaining 24 of the 36 men, said he was amazed at how the young soldiers looked like old ‘grizzled’ men.

“Later, to settle a debt, Joe accepted a whippet pup which he named Piper. The dog became the top racing whippet in the country and Joe travelled all over with it – wherever Joe went, Piper was with him.”

*Visit Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection at Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, until February 23 2020.

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Alastair Gilmour

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