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.
The Perfect Pint:
Cornish was advised at an early age to ‘draw and paint the things he knew around him.’ One of the surprising discoveries in Cornish’s 269 sketchbooks were his drawings of a ‘pint of beer.’
There are numerous examples in his sketchbooks and each includes references to colour notes, light, shade and other observational notes. The examples of beer glasses in bar scenes, with the contents at various stages of consumption or empty behind the bar are actually technical studies in their own right for a specific purpose.
Sometimes they appeared in the large bar scenes, but also with small groups of men or individuals, deep in thought with a pint.
Mining was physically hard work and the many pubs in towns and villages not only provided places to meet socially but also served a purpose to quench the thirst of the miners who had worked shifts of eight hours underground.
In his own words: “The accent is on atmosphere which contrasts the earthy humanism with the mysterious glitter of the beer and the glasses.”
No pitman’s home was far from a pub and there were 37 pubs in Spennymoor itself and a similar combined number in the surrounding villages.
Art critic Alistair Gilmour observed, “ Norman understands the pleasurable invitation that lies in a freshly pulled pint following a hard and dirty shift down the pit. You wipe away the first moustache of froth with the same hand gesture that wipes away the grime of the day.”
The bar scenes and character drawings in pubs, playing dominoes, darts, and enjoying ‘the craic’ feature as one of the chapters in Behind The Scenes; The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks, with many examples from this popular theme. Available at www.normancornish.com
For the record, Cornish’s favourite was a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale which he continued to enjoy with visitors in his final years.
Rosa Street School
The late 19th century was an interesting period in the emergence of Spennymoor as a town in SW Durham, midway between Durham and Bishop Auckland. In 1853 the Weardale Iron and Coal Company opened the Ironworks at Tudhoe and hundreds of immigrant workers arrived from the Midlands, Wales and Lancashire. As a town, Spennymoor came into existence in 1864 and the original Town Hall, situated on the High Street, opened in 1870. Spennymoor was ringed with collieries, blast furnaces and coke ovens. Very poor housing conditions prevailed and even by 1920 fewer than 10% of the town houses had water closets.
To meet the needs of an expanding population Rosa St School opened in 1870 and the external features of the school have remained unchanged. The school is situated near the lower end of Edward Street and viewing the ‘streetscape’ (previously unseen), Edward St can be seen with St Paul’s church ‘crowning the top of the street.’ To the left hand side, out of sight is the Zebra crossing providing safe passage for children, parents and grandparents taking children to and from school. Rosa St. School provides a focal point for children, parents with prams and all sorts of people going about their daily business. In his own words:
“Spennymoor has all that a painter needs in order to depict humanity.”
In May 2011 the Beamish Museum arranged a return to Spennymoor for the iconic Berriman’s Chip Van, following a period of restoration. The vehicle was parked at the side of the playground at Rosa St. School where staff from the museum were also in attendance. One afternoon Norman and Sarah Cornish also visited the chip van and after a short period of time a crowd gathered. A chair was quickly provided for Norman and he spoke at length about the chip van and Rosa St. School.
Rosa Street School is featured in ‘Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ along with St Paul’s Church, Edward Street and the Zebra Crossing, All are iconic locations featured on The Norman Cornish Trail. Details available at www.normancornish.com
The Pier at South Shields
During the 50s and 60s the content of Cornish’s creative output was dominated by the subjects in his immediate surroundings; the industrial landscapes, the journeys to and from work, the pubs in Spennymoor, street scenes, observations of local characters and his wonderful record of the cultural landscape. He also exhibited alongside the work of other regional and national artists via the exhibitions at leading galleries in the north of England such as the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, The Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, Tullie House in Carlisle and The Stone Gallery in Newcastle, which emerged as the leading commercial gallery in the region during this era.
As a frequent visitor to Newcastle it was inevitable that the sights and sounds of Tyneside would begin to exert some influence on his choice of subject material. His first painting of people fishing at South Shields appeared in the Stone Gallery exhibition of 1967 which was shortly after his step towards becoming a professional artist.
The pier at South Shields was an obvious attraction for an artist interested in people and places. In his own words:
“ the people make the shapes, I am just the medium.”
The south pier at South Shields is 1,570metres long and combines the interesting curvature of the feature, along with the rail lines used in the construction of the pier in 1854. The anglers watching and waiting after casting their lines, were irresistible to Cornish, and the subject became a favourite that also offered what he considered as “a different theatre of operations.”
9 preparatory sketches of the pier and anglers in action, along with 3 completed paintings and a photograph including his wife Sarah, appear in Behind the Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks. The preliminary work clearly illustrates the detailed research which he undertook to ensure technical accuracy as well as capturing moments in time.
In 1947 Cornish was invited to exhibit in the ‘Art by The Miner’ exhibition at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, London, to be opened by Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Norman actually hung the exhibition and in some spare time he visited the Reeves shop in Camden Town. It was during this visit that he first encountered the Flo-master Pen, nibs and ink; but sadly, he was unable to afford the cost of buying the pen.
Such was Cornish’s growing reputation that in 1951 he was invited to a weekend course at Wallington Hall, Northumberland, as a guest tutor along with John Minton and Harry Thubron, two very experienced artists and tutors with national reputations. One of the participants at Wallington Hall was the slightly younger Ted Harrison who was born in 1926 in Wingate, County Durham. Ted started to paint at West Hartlepool School of Art and after the war he qualified as a teacher from the University of Durham. Ted found his formal training uninspiring and rather disappointing. Undeterred, he and Cornish, whom he referred to as ‘Cornbags’ became both contemporaries and personal friends often visiting each other at their respective homes. Ann and John Cornish have many happy memories of meeting and enjoying the company of ‘Uncle Eddy’ and his flamboyance, as well as his interesting art in unusual locations around his family home in Wingate.
Ted would also visit Norman and Sarah Cornish at Bishops Close Street where Norman and Ted would nip along the road to The Bridge Inn at the end of the street and enjoy a pint, drawing characters in the pub, and discussing art, literature and philosophy.
Ted emigrated to the Yukon in Canada in1967 and thereafter became one of Canada’s most famous artists and the recipient of three Honorary Doctorates as well as a member of the Order of Canada for his contribution to Canadian culture. Both artists maintained their contact via regular correspondence which is now located in the Northumbria University archive.
Ted Harrison was very grateful to Norman Cornish for inspiring his life long quest to paint people and places. Norman Cornish was eternally grateful to Ted Harrison at that first meeting at Wallington Hall, when Ted purchased something for Cornish which enabled him to take his drawings to a new and exciting level – a Flo-master Pen. The rest is history, and the quality of Cornish’s drawings has been compared, ‘as good as any other artists in history’ - Andrew Festing, former President Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
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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