Simon Bartle, Visual Arts Correspondent

Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection At The Bowes Museum, Co Durham

by Norman Cornish
by Norman Cornish
"He stands as a magnificent Chronicler of one of the most important passages in English history."
Melvyn Bragg - Broadcaster and Author.

Norman was born 100 years ago on the 18th November 1919, in the small County Durham town of Spennymoor, which was built on mining.

In 1933, despite having passed his 11 plus Norman aged 14, commenced work at the Dean and Chapter Colliery, known locally as "The Butchers Shop" due its high accident rate.

From childhood, drawing for Norman was a passion, and he was able to join the sketching club at the Spennymoor Settlement. Sketching became the cornerstone of his life. Despite being gifted, mining was his livelihood, and it remained so throughout the war years.

In 1947, there was a turning point, when the National Coal Board purchased five of his paintings for their new London Office. In 1950, he showed his work alongside that of Henry Moore at a London exhibition, called The Coal Miners. Norman formed an enduring relationship with The Stone Gallery in Newcastle, who showed his work alongside that of LS Lowry, and the Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell.

The 1960's saw Norman featuring alongside Sheila Fell in the BBC television arts series Monitor, but in spite of a growing reputation he remained firmly rooted to his origins, and he continued to work in the mines. That perhaps singles him out as truly the artist of the people who were the industrial North. He said of himself: "I paint human beings. I paint their hopes and their shapes and their attitudes and the feelings I have when I look at them. The images come from the people. They create them. I am just the medium." How true. The fact that Norman was firmly embedded in his community was not lost on his friend LS Lowry. There are similarities between their respective works, but the one differentiating factor was that Norman Cornish is not an observer, or commentator from afar, he is actually one of the people that he paints.

Norman Cornish was truly appreciated by Lowry, and wryly Norman commented that "Lowry bought two of my works. Unfortunately, I was not wealthy enough to return the compliment." Prime Minister, Edward Heath also bought two of his paintings. Norman's work clearly had, and still does, have a wide appeal.

Norman painted right up until his death. He died on 1 August 2014, aged 94. He made a huge contribution to the world of art in the North, and one which will not be forgotten.

Melvyn Bragg, said of the work of Norman Cornish: "Where is this community which was the engine of the greatest revolution in the world - the Industrial Revolution? These are the men who made the real British Empire in steam and engineering and shipbuilding, and fed it with a vital power of coal. It's gone. It has been all but wiped from the landscape and we mourn it much it needs to be celebrated. The work of Norman Cornish will lead us there."

The exhibition comprises 60 works, including works in oils, pastels and charcoal. Norman Cornish left a wonderful legacy. It is worth crossing county boundaries to see. You will definitely enjoy both The Bowes Museum, and the exhibition.

Norman Cornish was more than just a chronicler, he delved down deep into the souls of the people he painted, and you can be absolutely sure, his works will find their way into the depths your soul.

The exhibition is organised by the Bowes Museum which was created over 100 years ago by John and Joséphine Bowes. They constructed a truly magnificent building to house perhaps one of the greatest collections of fine arts in the North of England. Since 2005 significant improvements have been made to The Bowes Museum.

The Bowes Museum

Newgate, Barnard Castle, Co Durham DL12 8NP

The Bowes Museum is open daily 10.00 – 5.00. Closed only 25 & 26 December & 1 January.

For admission details please see: