In 1989 , towards the end of his autobiography A Slice of Life, Norman summarised his thoughts during some moments of reflection about his life and work.
I believe that in some way I have been influenced by almost every picture that I have ever looked at. I have been much influenced by the work of the important masters: Rembrandt’s drawings, early Van Gogh, Bruegel, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, and maybe Lowry, to name but a few. However I have resisted being swamped by their influences, utilising their influence instead as an education in mental and visual awareness.
Edgar Degas (1837-1917) was a French artist famous for his pastel drawings and oil paintings of ballerinas. Degas also produced bronze sculptures, prints and drawings. He was one of the founders of Impressionism, although he preferred to be called a realist, with his observations of contemporary life and activities.
A print by Degas – Combing the Hair, used to hang on the wall outside of Norman’s studio at Whitworth Terrace in Spennymoor. Inspired by Degas, the ‘dry media’ of charcoal, chalks and pastels became Norman’s favourite media in his portraits and some large works. By the age of twelve, Norman’s daughter Ann was accustomed to posing for her father in many different situations. Ann in Red Shoes.
During Cornish’s era, streets were often very much the hub of social activity in many towns and villages, with few cars on the roads. Front doors were rarely locked and people knew almost everyone in the street. If ever something was delivered then neighbours would come to the door to see what was happening.
Back streets and quiet streets were sometimes the venues for football, skipping, gossiping, hanging out the washing and street games for children. A horse and cart was a regular sight on the streets of Spennymoor and other towns and villages throughout the region during the period chronicled by Cornish.
Edward Street was a popular subject for Cornish, which he visited on numerous occasions throughout his career at all times of the night and day and in different seasons. The works always included activity by people going about their business, which added interest to the composition. In his own words:
When out walking I often passed through this street on my way home. I was interested in the way that the street was crowned at the top by St Paul’s Church.
In our memories and of course in history books, most so called ‘great events’ are usually well-recorded, but sometimes the ordinary things that happen in our lives are not considered extraordinary enough for comment. Yet things are often very important nevertheless, and sometimes give a reader a much better idea of the ‘times’ than the supposedly great events.
Norman and Sarah Cornish lived in Whitworth Terrace no more than 200 metres from Edward Street and St Paul’s Church; and at the bottom of the street was Rosa Street School, which was a short distance from the Zebra Crossing, and Eddy’s Fish shop.
These subjects provided all of the inspiration Cornish needed to capture simple everyday activity, reminiscent of early Dutch influences with pictorial representation of scenes of daily life. He was exposed to the works of other great artists throughout his career but continued to develop his own approach to interpreting the ‘life around him’.
These locations comprise a significant section of The Norman Cornish Trail which can be downloaded at www.normancornish.com along with information about Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks including previously unseen images in a chapter about the street scenes synonymous with his paintings and drawings.
A Missing Link
In 1964, a very astute artist added to his collection of paintings by purchasing a version of The Gantry by Norman Cornish. The painting cost 30 Guineas (equivalent today of £2,000+) in an exhibition at The Stone Gallery in Newcastle, and the buyer was Laurence Stephen Lowry.
Lowry was an English artist and many of his paintings and drawings depict Pendlebury and the vicinity of Salford, Lancashire, where he lived and worked for 40 years. Lowry depicted scenes of life in industrial NW England and he was a lonely man depicting loneliness. He began his working career as a rent collector and he was perceived as an outsider in his community looking in on his subjects. Cornish painted life in the NE of England but he was immersed in his community where he recorded everyday life. At work – working underground as a miner during the day, and in the evenings and weekends, spending his leisure time in the pubs of Spennymoor with his marras (workmates). The beer in Cornish’s glass became the passport to be able to share, observe and record the life around him. Because he could blend in, this gave him the opportunity to produce so many character drawings in different settings.
Mr. Cornish and Mr Lowry (always formal) were well known to each other and they first exhibited together in Carlisle in 1951 at Tullie House: ‘The Northern Realists’, and thereafter on a number of occasions in London. They shared the same agent at The Stone Gallery in Newcastle and during the 60s continued to exhibit together along with other regional and leading British artists.
At various times, both artists had connections with Sunderland. Lowry was a regular visitor to the North East and he enjoyed painting coastal scenes when he stayed at the Seaburn Hotel near Sunderland. He was also a frequent visitor to Berwick upon Tweed where there is a Lowry Trail in his memory. Cornish was a part-time lecturer at Sunderland Art College from 1967 and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Sunderland University in 2012. Each artist has a picture hanging in the National Glass Centre at Sunderland: Lowry’s drawing of Monkwearmouth Church is there and on the opposite wall is Cornish’s Pit Road in Winter, currently on display at The Bowes Museum extended exhibition.
On 16th August 2020 , McTears Auctioneers Glasgow: The Scottish Contemporary Art Auction Lot 668
Gantry, A Mixed Media by Norman Stansfield Cornish MBE 1919-2014
Label verso Stone Gallery, Catalogue number 42
Purchaser inscribed on label 22nd February – 21st March 1964 LS Lowry Esq.
A Portrait Artist
For Norman Cornish the 1970s was a period of both consolidation and development as an artist with his studio enabling him to become completely absorbed in his work, without distractions. Not even a telephone in the house.
His paintings and drawings increasingly received national acclaim on many fronts. A second purchase of a Cornish painting by the Prime Minister Edward Heath, gave him some quiet satisfaction that his work was heading for number 10. However, Cornish declined a photo opportunity with the PM at The Stone Gallery alongside LS Lowry, Sheila Fell and his agent Mick Marshall. The photographer was the film producer Brian Forbes.
During this era, Cornish appeared in three different television documentaries for the BBC and Tyne Tees TV. A radio broadcast followed with Melvyn Bragg, who made his first TV documentary in 1963 for BBC - Two Border Artists: Norman Cornish and Sheila Fell. An Honorary Master of Arts degree was awarded to Cornish from Newcastle University and one of his self-portraits was also photographed for the National Portrait Gallery.
In between this close attention and rising profile, Cornish received a number of commissions, including a request to paint the portrait of Viscount Mathew Ridley. Cornish’s large studio was arranged with a table in the centre with table legs specifically reduced to a height of 50 cms. The sitter stepped up, sat down on a chair, and was immediately at eye level with the artist for a number of sittings until completion of the portrait.
Cornish was aware of the importance of this commission because of Lord Ridley’s art connections. His wife’s grandfather was Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, Fellow of The Royal Academy and member of The Royal Fine Arts Commission. Lutyens was the designer of the Whitehall Cenotaph and he had been named after a friend of his father’s, the famous Victorian animal and portrait artist, Sir Edwin Landseer who is probably best known for his huge bronze lions in Trafalgar Square and his depiction of The Monarch of The Glen.
Norman and Sarah Cornish enjoyed a very good relationship with Viscount Mathew Ridley who was delighted with his portrait .
Viscount Mathew Ridley Pastel
A Man of Destiny : Interesting Times
In 1945 at the age of 26 Cornish made an important aspirational statement published in the newsletter of a national organisation.
‘Art this study that gives us so much pleasure, is worthy of study and personally I consider it worthy of the study of my whole lifetime.’
Despite having to continue working underground as a miner he began to make progress along the path to public exposure of his work, but also a growing recognition through sheer determination and resilience. These steps took him beyond the ‘Sketching Club’ exhibitions along a trajectory as a participant in exhibitions of huge significance in his development as an emerging artist of extraordinary ability. His first solo exhibition in 1946 at the Green Room, the People’s Theatre, Newcastle, was followed in London with ‘Art by the Miner’1947, including a first BBC TV appearance. In 1950 ‘The Coal Miners’ exhibition at the Artists International Association Gallery in Leicester Square continued the upward spiral of engagement and wider recognition.
More exhibitions were to follow and one of particular prominence in the north of England was planned in 1951 at Tullie House, Carlisle: ‘Realism in Contemporary Painting,’ by Northern Artists. The exhibition was organised by Cumbrian artist Norman Alford supported by Bob Forrester. Together they went to extraordinary lengths to highlight music and art in Cumbria with which the ‘ordinary man’ could engage. The underlying principle in the selection of artists and their work was that they should portray everyday life from their own specific locality: Social Realism. The other invited artists included; LS Lowry ‘The Punch and Judy Show,’ Norman Cornish ‘The Fish Shop,’ along with works by Ned Owens and Theodore Major.
Victor Pasmore, Head of Art at Newcastle University was a guest artist who wrote the catalogue introduction despite his modernist style which later proved controversial with his Apollo Pavillion structure in Peterlee in County Durham. During this post-war era other artists and art schools were creating a tension as they steered students towards ‘fashionable tricks’ and experimentation. One of Cornish’s contemporaries in the late 50s and early 60s disclosed that he had been ostracized at Leeds College of Art by tutors who were keen to embrace the modern art movement despite his love of a traditional approach to landscape and portraiture.
The Tullie House exhibition marked the beginning of a period of 16 years where Cornish and Lowry exhibited together, continuing in 1952, ‘The Mirror and The Square,’ New Barrington Galleries, London, and thereafter at The Stone Gallery in Newcastle where they shared the same agent. Cornish also returned on several occasions to The Borders Arts Society in Carlisle, during the mid- 60s to address the members about his work. The paintings of the original artists who exhibited in ‘Realism in Contemporary Painting’ have also stood the test of time and may be viewed via a simple search of the internet.
Throughout the centenary year, an interesting range of themed exhibitions is planned in order to commemorate Norman’s life and to celebrate his work.
If you would like to find out more click below:
Stay tuned via social media:
Like us on Facebook:
Follow us on Twitter:Follow @normanscornish