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A Famous Fairground

Many of the paintings and drawings by Norman Cornish can be identified in terms of time and place along with an interpretation or narrative. This has never been a simple challenge when the subject is unusual but, nevertheless, acquiring the story behind the picture has always been an intriguing task. A very good example may be found on page 129 in ‘The Quintessential Cornish’ - Traction Engine - Pastel, Private Collection. A slightly different version was uncovered in the archive of images of early work. One of the most famous fairgrounds in the country was resident in Spennymoor and the search for an answer could lead only to one man.

John Culine MBE was born in 1947 into a fairground family, in a caravan in Jubilee Park in Spennymoor. He attended King Street School and until recently he was president of the Showman’s Guild, the national body representing the fairground industry. He was a Town Councillor for 18 years and Mayor in 2004- 05 as well as being an MBE for services to ‘showmen and the community.’ Family members range from Alice Culine who crossed Bridlington harbour on a tightrope to Cliff Culine who appeared with William Cody (Buffalo Bill) on Durham Sands in 1894 as a knife and tomahawk thrower when Cody brought his ‘Wild West’ show to England.

John Culine and Norman Cornish were well known to each other and on one occasion Cornish was asked to paint some cartoon figures onto one of the fairground rides. The task was completed reluctantly and details remain shrouded in secrecy! However, two pictures did eventually emerge during the 1950s when the King Carnival Traction Engine was an obvious attraction during the two weeks when the fairground was in the Jubilee Park for the annual ‘Spenny Gala’ celebrations. One version records the atmosphere late in the evening and a similar version during daytime captures the ‘fun of the fair’ with waltzers, the chairoplanes, rodeo, Noah’s Ark Speedway, The Cake Walk, Shuggy Boats, Dodgems and test your strength.

A relatively unknown fact about the Showmen’s Guild was that it was a philanthropic organisation and during the world wars their lorries were donated to the government to help the war effort along with the purchase of 12 ambulances in the first World War and the cost of a Spitfire called ‘Fun of the Fair’ was donated to the Polish squadron during World War 2.

We’re not kings, we’re not queens, we’re the marvellous Culines said a Victorian Poster, a motto used by the family when they embarked on their life in the circus and fairground. A life that would encompass joy, sorrow, love, tragedy, and some incredible feats of showmanship. ‘From Fanfare to Funfare’ a book by John Clifford Culine MBE £14.50 is available from (National Fairground and Circus Archive) and when you look at the fairground pictures by Norman Cornish - every picture tells a story.

Cornish Centenary

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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