The Durham Miners' Gala Mural
This iconic Mural was commissioned in1962 by Durham County Council to coincide with the opening of the new County Hall in October 1963 by The Duke of Edinburgh. Norman’s agent at the time considered that the painting would become the cornerstone of his career and it is quite appropriate in this, his centenary year, that the Mural will find a new home in 2020 as Durham County Council re-locates to a new County Hall in Durham City. The Miners’ Gala Mural is a highly significant work of art that goes to the very heart of Durham culture and heritage, and which evokes deepening and strengthening emotional attachments for many people who identify with this inspirational record of a bygone era.
The Story of The Durham Miners' Gala Mural:
- In 1974 Norman Cornish was awarded an Honorary MA.
- In 1995 Norman Cornish was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Northumbria University.
- In 2012 Norman Cornish was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Sunderland University.
The 1960s a social context
By the beginning of the 1960s Norman’s career as an artist was beginning to develop. The dilemma he faced was of a double life of a coal miner, to provide security for his family, and that of an artist whose work was increasingly in demand by a national public becoming increasingly aware of this emerging talent.
The 1960s was also the beginning of a period of huge social upheaval as coal mines in SW Durham became exhausted.
Durham County Council was also coming to terms with acquiring a new County Hall to replace the Old Shire Hall in Durham City. The re-location was to provide a modern facility to meet the needs of and manage the changing face of County Durham in the second half of the 20th Century.
From Coal Miner to professional Artist
Norman Cornish transferred to Mainsforth Colliery in 1962 as part of the re-deployment of miners at Dean and Chapter Colliery as it declined from one of the largest coal mines in Europe to closure in 1965.
During this period Norman was also under considerable pressure from his agent Mick Marshall at The Stone Gallery in Newcastle to become a full time professional artist. At this time the only forms of communication were letters in the post or by telephone from the telephone box near The War Memorial in front of the old Arcadia cinema (Wetherspoons)at the end of Bishop’s Close Street.
During the current PhD research by Lucas Ferguson Sharpe (University of Northumbria) it has emerged from the Cornish Archive that 20 letters were written during this period by The Stone Gallery between 1960 and 1963 in an attempt to persuade Norman to leave mining.
Becoming a professional artist would introduce different risks with a young family to support and a colliery house ‘tied to the mine’.
An irregular income from buyers of his work added to the insecurity of making the big step from miner to full time artist which would also require appropriate accommodation for a studio.
An Unusual Phone Call
One day in 1962 at Mainsforth Colliery, Norman Cornish was working at the coal face when a message was brought to him to go to the nearest telephone underground. Thinking that a problem had occurred at home, he approached the telephone nervously to discover that it was someone from Durham County Council.
The caller introduced himself to commission Norman to ‘paint a Mural’ typifying life in County Durham, to be installed in the new County Hall which was planned to open in 1964. Imagine the scene, sweating, covered in coal dust, semi darkness, underground and suddenly requested to undertake a major commission! Norman was reluctant at first but discussed this request with his wife Sarah, Bob Heslop and Bert Dees from The Spennymoor Settlement and Mick and Tilly Marshall at The Stone Gallery who considered this commission (if accepted) would become ‘the corner stone’ of his career.
Norman was initially nervous about the scale of the project and concerned about his main source of income being removed. He was granted ‘leave of absence’ without pay for 12 months but before he could start, he had to report to the manager of Mainsforth Colliery (whom he didn’t know) to discuss his leave.
Norman’s view was that the miners were treated like convicts by the officials at the mine and forced to live in primitive conditions in mining communities almost like slaves.
A Difficult Conversation
A conversation with the Mainsforth Colliery manager
“So you fancy yourself as a bit of an artist, well, I’ve never heard of you” - Colliery manager
“Well then, could you name me two British artists or sculptors of world -wide renown, who are still living and working in this country” - NC
Heavy silence broken by “No I can’t I’m afraid, but it’s not in my interest”
“It had been in your interest enough to say that you hadn’t heard of me, but you hadn’t heard of any artists or sculptors. You ought to have got at least one sculptor” - NC
“Oh and who might that be?” he asked.
“Henry Moore was the son of a colliery manager or senior official” - NC
Lost for words he finally shrugged his shoulders and said “Ah well, the moving finger writes”
“Can you finish the quotation?“ - NC
“No”, he replied. “Can you?”
NC finished the quotation and added several other verses from The Rubaiyat of Omarkhayyann. Verse 51
They eventually became more respectful and friendly towards each other.
Initial Ideas for the Composition
Conditions for the commission were attached by Durham County Council: secrecy, no information to the regional press or photographs during the painting of the commission.
Norman had to make his own arrangements to find some premises big enough to do the work. He was fortunate enough to be offered St Andrew’s Church Mission Hall which provided sufficient space but was draughty and unheated. The commission was completed in three months during the winter of 1962/63, one of the coldest winters on record in the UK.
He also had to acquire the materials himself including oil paints and a canvas of suitable quality and size. Advice was sought from a friend at The Laing gallery in Newcastle and letters were written to suppliers of canvas of suitable length and quality.
The architect of the new County Hall drafted a suggested image of how the mural might look and initially four small subjects/themes were suggested by the County Council:
A Trades Union Meeting, An underground mining scene, banners being paraded through the streets of Durham and the eventual scene of the Gala at the Racecourse.
The suggested dimensions appear for the first time in this picture 6 feet x 29 feet which eventually became 30 feet 9 inches by 5 feet 8 inches.
Three wooden stretchers for the canvas which could be bolted together were provided by local joiner Matt Golightly.
Difficult Working Conditions
Working on a commission such as this Norman developed his composition by producing preliminary drawings based on observations which become smaller versions of the final composition. This allowed Norman to be confident that by a series of steps, the final full scale version actually worked in terms of the relationship between the figures and the overall composition.
The actual execution of the commission proved even more challenging than he had initially anticipated and at times he began to doubt his own ability to finish the painting.
The first version was scaled to 300 cm, and placed from the bedroom window sill to the top of the stairs. He was sometimes in despair with feelings of anxiety and obsession and imagined:
“Artist found hung in front of unfinished picture”.
The winter conditions began to take their toll and sometimes icicles had to be broken to access the hall which had no heating. He had to wear several coats to keep warm, a muffler, a cap and gloves! Caring support was provided by his wife Sarah and positive support also from Bob and George Heslop, and Bert Dees who were occasionally admitted into the hall to view the mural’s progress by means of a secret knock which gained them entry. They had all been members of The Settlement Sketching Club.
An Inspired Choice
The arrival of the banners at the Racecourse at The Durham Big Meeting, the annual Miners’ Gala.
Norman eventually chose this theme because the county had a long mining history. He visualised the banners as representing the sails of a galleon with three ‘waves’ of people in the sea of humanity below, all depicted with an undulating rhythm and counter rhythm to suggest movement.
The young people in the wave to the left represent the present and look towards the centre-the future. The elderly folk to the right, representatives of the past, turn to the bold central banner which bears the slogan ‘Unity is Strength’- a symbol of the future. The whole scene represents an allegory of time.
During his research for the composition, Norman immersed himself in many of the Spennymoor Town Band rehearsals to observe and draw the instruments. He also researched the marching formation of the bands to ensure absolute accuracy.
The development of the various maquettes clearly show the development of his ideas to achieve a final perfect composition.
At a later stage Norman added himself and his son John at the edge of the scene (left hand side) as observers rather than participants who are fundamental to the composition.
It was very important for Norman to depict himself as being part of the miners’ annual celebrations which reinforced his sense of belonging, involvement and affinity with his subject. One of the artists who influenced Norman was Rembrandt who is said to have included himself in the ‘Night Watch’.
Solidarity and Brotherhood
Norman was recalled to an appointment at Mainsforth Colliery to review the progress of the mural and his absence from work.
Other miners were being interviewed for various reasons and Norman waited all day. When his turn arrived, he was confronted by a committee of five officials smoking cigars.
He felt like a convict in front of the Parole Board.
Some miners believed that Norman had been on full pay and therefore felt he should be first on the redundancy list. In fact, he had been without his pay for twelve months.
How ironic that Norman had been painting a piece depicting brotherhood and solidarity!
Delivery to County Hall
When the mural was finished, Norman was faced with the task of arranging his own transport to County Hall.
The mural was carefully folded and placed in the back of Jimmy Gill’s furniture van. Jimmy owned a carpet shop in Cheapside in Spennymoor. The mural was delivered to County Hall and arrangements made for ‘the hanging’.
Norman was very nervous about the process of hanging the mural and ensuring the baton on which it rested was absolutely horizontal.
He was taken outside for some refreshments with staff from County Hall and unknown to Norman the mural was hung in his absence. Noticing his mounting anxiety, staff members escorted Norman away for some light refreshments and the mural was hung in his absence. Huge relief at a successful outcome was felt by all involved as the painting was not insured for accidental damage.
Unable to pay Jimmy Gill, Norman gifted him a painting of The Gantry which turned up in a loft in Spennymoor several years ago to the delight of one of Jimmy Gill’s descendants.
The Opening of County Hall
The new County Hall was opened on the 14th October 1963 by the Duke of Edinburgh.
A smaller version of the Mural was presented to the Duke of York in April 1989 to be included in the Royal Collection.
The Miners’ Gala Mural will be re-located to the recently refurbished Bishop Auckland Town Hall later in March and be open to members of the public from Saturday 4th April.
A wonderful story to celebrate towards the end of the Norman Cornish Centenary 1919-2019.