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Mr Cornish & Mr Lowry: A Tale of Two Artists

When asked about the artist LS Lowry many people would most likely associate his work with his distinctive style of painting industrial landscapes with human figures often referred to as ‘matchstick men.’ However, there is much more to the life and work of Lowry, who eventually became one of the most famous 20th century British artists and was equally noted for his portraits, landscapes, seascapes and painting and drawing industrial towns in the North West. Often overlooked or unknown were his pictures from his time spent in the North East and South Wales.

There are few people in the North East who would fail to instantly recognise the work of Norman Cornish. His evocative paintings and drawings provide an unrivalled social record as a chronicler of an important era in English history. His observations of people and places are a window into a world which no longer exists outside but which Norman has immortalised for us all with its struggle, its beauty, its squalor and its dignity. As with so many things in life there is often more than first meets the eye and both Lowry and Cornish each shared a long and interesting journey to future success.

Laurence Stephen Lowry was born on the 1st of November 1887 in Barrett Street in Old Trafford, Manchester. Norman Stansfield Cornish was born on November 18th 1919, in Catherine Street in Spennymoor, County Durham. A chronological gap of thirty two years, but a much wider gulf in terms of their local environment and the socio-economic circumstances in which they both spent most of their early years growing up and as aspiring artists. Lowry’s family has been described as ‘lower middle class’ with parents who had high ambitions. The Cornish family was firmly rooted in working class culture with an underlying basic need to survive ‘hard times.’ Lowry lived for 88 years until 1976 and Cornish ‘passed away’ in 2014 at the age of 95.

Cornish lived in a house with no bathroom or inside toilet, where he shared a room with his five brothers and one sister. He described living conditions as ‘primitive’ and he contracted diphtheria when seven years old. The only reading material at home was an American detective comic. His journey from miner to professional artist is a story of determination and resilience to overcome hardship and prejudice.

In his early years Lowry suffered repression from his mother, an accomplished pianist, who was disappointed when he was born, hoping for a girl. She was also frustrated that he didn’t share her aspirations for a traditional academic route to future employment in view of the investment his parents had made for Lowry to attend a private school. Lowry’s emerging interest in drawing was met with chagrin within the family circle although he was determined to fulfil his interest in drawing and painting. Lowry was the only child of an apparently loveless marriage and a weak and unsuccessful father who died in 1932.

Cornish started work aged 14 years on Boxing Day 1933 at Dean & Chapter Colliery. He walked three miles to work in the snow to start as a Pony Putter. He was denied the opportunity of continuing his education like so many others at this time.

Lowry’s parents appeared to show a lack of interest in his progress at school and he also had little talent for music. They had their own ideas for his future direction and career but he began to develop a desire to draw which became useful to fill his time and which absorbed him in his lonely hours at home. His extended family rather than his parents began to notice his interest in drawing as they recalled his sketches of boats and seascapes on scraps of paper from visits to the coast. His father occasionally took him to visit the Manchester City Art Gallery.