Heroines of the Coalfield
One of the essays in ‘Behind The Scenes the Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ was written by Pam Royle who until recently (retired) was Main Presenter ITV News, Tyne Tees and Border. Pam first met Cornish in 2009 for an arranged interview which was broadcast to celebrate ‘Norman Cornish at Ninety’ at the University of Northumbria Gallery, now known as Gallery North. This was one of dozens of broadcasts Cornish participated in the first being at Alexandra Palace Studio, North London, in 1947.
During the interview with Pam Royle they discussed the role of women in the coalfield and how tough it was for a woman to look after both family and home in a pit village. In his own words, “ Everything was done by hand, the washing, the cleaning, the cooking and looking after the family. There was no rest!”
Cornish often drew his mother working, and it was no surprise that the working day of women was actually much longer than the miners who typically worked an eight –hour shift. Coal miners’ wives also had to cope with the demands of two World Wars and the challenges of inadequate water supplies, sewerage systems and earth closets in outside toilets. Public health services were not fully developed and on one occasion in Bishops Close Street a surgeon was summoned from Newcastle to perform a leg amputation on a kitchen table.
On a daily basis women would never know whether their husbands would return from work, such was the frequency of fatal accidents underground caused by gas explosions and collapsed tunnels. In his own words;
“ I many times drew and painted pictures of my wife Sarah, when she was busy with household chores, especially when she was knitting. I felt her prayer-like attitude gave the pose of sanctity and her knitting was her way of praying really, doing her best to keep our home and children together. This portrait represents a pose which was typical of thousands of women who were heroines of the coalfield.”
On the 4th of November 2013, Pam Royle recorded the final television interview, which consisted of Cornish talking about some of his favourite paintings, despite his declining health and well-being. Norman Cornish died on August 1st 2014.
Throughout the centenary year, an interesting range of themed exhibitions is planned in order to commemorate Norman’s life and to celebrate his work.
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