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Behind the Bar

Popular terms such as landscape, seascape, townscape and cityscape may be well known to those interested in the visual arts, including photography. Many years ago Cornish introduced a new term when his observations in pubs took him ‘behind the bar’ - a bottlescape.

At one time there were over 35 pubs in Spennymoor and they became a favourite source of subject material for the drawings that became the foundation for his iconic ‘bar scenes.’ For over 30 years a miner by day, but with the eye of an artist at work observing ‘the things around him’ and his drawings and paintings eventually became a wonderful social record of his life and times in his era from the 1930s until the early 70s.

One of his favourite ‘locals’ was nearest to the end of Bishops Close Street but he also frequented other pubs in Spennymoor such as The Wheatsheaf, The Lord Raglan, The Pit Laddie and later in his career The Hillingdon which was close to Whitworth Terrace and the family home from 1967. In his own words:

“I made drawings of pub interiors in days past because I was fascinated by the men standing at the bar drinking and talking, or playing dominoes. I also realised that life would change in some ways. Today people still drink in pubs but the atmosphere has changed.”

As a professional artist Cornish was very thorough in his research: chairs, tables, posters, beer pumps and pint glasses all received his close observation and it is hardly surprising that his preparatory drawings took him ‘behind the bar.’ He was equally well known to barmaids and landlords who, like the men drinking and playing dominoes, would accept him as ‘one of the lads’ rather than as an artist at work.

“The people make the shapes I am just the medium.’

The actions of the barmaid ‘pulling a pint’ were a huge attraction for Cornish as a subject worthy of drawing. From different angles and perspectives, with her feet firmly planted, several pints balanced on a tray as each glass was filled in sequence to ensure a proper measure, and the angular arm pulling the beer pumps so that the whole process was completed to perfection. An obvious observation for an artist of his calibre.

A portrait of the barmaid at the Bridge Inn appeared on the BBC Antiques Roadshow earlier this year and the pub eventually adopted a new name, the Brewer’s Arms. Outside on the pavement, within site of the former end of Bishops Close Street is a board which is part of the Norman Cornish Trail and illustrating some of those iconic ‘bar scenes’.




The Creative Process Part 4 The Crowded Bar

One of the popular questions at the end of public lectures about Cornish’s life and work has always been about the process undertaken by Cornish to create his paintings and in particular his larger works on canvas. A popular misconception is that a completed picture is produced as a single exercise from beginning to end. The creative process is actually a very engrossing and mentally taxing exercise for the artist, demanding maximum concentration, and can often take days, weeks or even years to complete as the artist revisits the work several times. Cornish worked in silence unlike Lowry who listened to classical music as he worked late into the evening. Both artists delayed the acquisition of telephones until much later in their lives to avoid unnecessary distractions.

The pictures accompanying this feature provide a wonderful, example of the evolving steps to achieve satisfaction with the outcome of a subject re-visited on several occasions over the years. Coincidentally this approach was taken by both Cornish and Lowry with subjects repeated with minor adjustments in the search for perfection.

The Busy Bar provides a classic example and much thought would go into the underlying geometry of the images and their layout, which Cornish considered to be an abstract form in itself, giving rhythm and structure to the picture. Note for instance the development of the composition from the unusual angle viewed from behind the bar directly opposite the drinkers and then the angle becomes a diagonal. The diagonal undergoes some subtle changes including a higher viewpoint to reveal other men seated and then a detailed close up of the man with the newspaper.

Finally, the rationale behind the classic composition with underlying principles was discovered written by Cornish on a scrap of paper in his studio. ‘Human drama based on gesture and attitude, monochromatic with the accent on atmosphere which contrasts the earthy humanism and mysterious glitter of the beer and the glasses.’ This just about sums it up !

In 1989 the Busy Bar was purchased by Scottish and Newcastle Breweries for their boardroom. In 2007 the painting was donated to the Permanent Collection at Northumbria University for the ‘public benefit’ at future exhibitions.

Next week: The creative process Part 4.





The Creative Process Part 3 The Busy Bar

One of the popular questions at the end of public lectures about Cornish’s life and work has always been about the process undertaken by Cornish to create his paintings and in particular his larger works on canvas. A popular misconception is that a completed picture is produced as a single exercise from beginning to end. The creative process is actually a very engrossing and mentally taxing exercise for the artist, demanding maximum concentration, and can often take days, weeks or even years to complete as the artist revisits the work several times. Cornish worked in silence unlike Lowry who listened to classical music as he worked late into the evening. Both artists delayed the acquisition of telephones until much later in their lives to avoid unnecessary distractions.

The pictures accompanying this feature provide a wonderful, example of the evolving steps to achieve satisfaction with the outcome of a subject re-visited on several occasions over the years. Coincidentally this approach was taken by both Cornish and Lowry with subjects repeated with minor adjustments in the search for perfection.

The Busy Bar provides a classic example and much thought would go into the underlying geometry of the images and their layout, which Cornish considered to be an abstract form in itself, giving rhythm and structure to the picture. Note for instance the development of the composition from the unusual angle viewed from behind the bar directly opposite the drinkers and then the angle becomes a diagonal. The diagonal undergoes some subtle changes including a higher viewpoint to reveal other men seated and then a detailed close up of the man with the newspaper.

Finally, the rationale behind the classic composition with underlying principles was discovered written by Cornish on a scrap of paper in his studio. ‘Human drama based on gesture and attitude, monochromatic with the accent on atmosphere which contrasts the earthy humanism and mysterious glitter of the beer and the glasses.’ This just about sums it up !

In 1989 the Busy Bar was purchased by Scottish and Newcastle Breweries for their boardroom. In 2007 the painting was donated to the Permanent Collection at Northumbria University for the ‘public benefit’ at future exhibitions.

Next week: The creative process Part 4.






A Good Drying Day:

‘They that wash on Monday have all the week to dry.’ This Victorian advice on housekeeping routines set in stone the idea that Monday should be wash-day so that everything could be dried, pressed, aired and folded well before Sunday, the day of rest and clean clothes. A typical Monday in many homes during the 1950s would have seen a small kitchen full of laundry at different stages of washing, and hot water was provided by various means. Some homes had a boiler heated by the coal fire but at 33 Bishops Close Street a gas burner underneath a metal tub provided the hot water. A ‘blue bag’ was added to make the whites ‘whiter.’

Washing machines were a late arrival in Spennymoor in the 50s and ‘poss tubs’ were in use in most homes and handwashing was the norm.

A clothes horse was an essential item in every home for drying indoors around the fire, although dampness pervaded the atmosphere when drying outside was impossible. A good drying day meant that the back yard or back lane was full of washing ‘hanging out to dry,’ supported by a ‘clothes prop’ fashioned from a single piece of wood with a v-shaped notch cut at the end of the prop.

There were many obstacles within a short distance of the back gate in Bishops Close Street including a slag heap, ironworks and steam engines pulling coal trucks at all times of the night and day. Any thoughts of playing cricket or football in the back lane on washing day quickly evaporated when met with short sharp reprimands from mothers, although a skipping rope was slightly more acceptable. The writer vividly recalls (Tyneside, aged 7yrs) with the lads, hearing the words, “if that ball goes anywhere near my washing you’ll all be skinned alive and hung out on the washing line to dry!”

All of these memories, including the delivery of coal in the back lane were also recorded by Cornish and his work continues to provide a remarkable slice of social history typical of many communities throughout the UK.

The ‘poss tubs’ have all gone, along with the clothes horses, and good drying days are no longer essential. This social change also signalled the demise of the clothes peg which was probably one of the few items to escape the attention of Cornish in his sketchbooks.





John Peace Exhibition: Tyne and Tide - South Shields Museum and Art Gallery

EXHIBITION CLOSES ON MAY 7th

Last year we were delighted to feature an article on behalf of the family of John Peace who have been working very hard to establish the Back Catalogue of his extensive range of work held in many public and private collections in the UK. Cornish and Peace were contemporaries who exhibited together during the 60s and 70s at The Stone Gallery in Newcastle, along with many other leading British artists.

John was from Lemington and taught at Sunderland Art College at the same time as Cornish who worked there from 1967 for a few years after leaving mining. John Peace’s work records the NE from a different perspective and may be viewed at www.johnpeacepaintings.co.uk

John Peace studied at the South Shields School of Art from 1949-51, then at Leeds before gaining a place at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He had a lifelong career in painting, as well as teaching art, and produced hundreds of paintings many of which captured the landscape and aspects of social life in the changing region around him. It was a career deeply influenced and shaped by his time in South Shields.

This major exhibition opens on November 13th until May 7th 2022 and brings together a significant selection of some of his finest work. It focuses on landscapes, many depicting the region’s coast and rivers, as well as the area around Lemington, where he spent most of his life, and includes paintings of South Tyneside and Sunderland. Landscape was Peace’s main interest but he also produced many paintings of other subjects and a section of the gallery will present examples of his portraits, still lifes and scenes of family life.

Above all Peace was interested in capturing the effects of light. His compositions were often simple and painted with a narrow range of colours to create a powerful striking view of the world around him. Tyne and Tide provides a unique opportunity to see many of his best paintings including those owned by his family, alongside a number of loans from private collections.

An exceptional exhibition.






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.

If you would like to find out more click below:











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