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Beamish Museum: Latest News

Happy New Year! Time flies and it doesn’t seem so long ago when we first approached Beamish Museum in October 2013 to ask if the museum would be interested in acquiring the Norman Cornish studio from his home in Spennymoor. Norman and Sarah Cornish transferred to a residential care home early in 2014 and following the initial visit by the ‘Keeper of the collection’ the strategic view was to accept the studio and most of the house contents, some of which were from the 1950s era.

Little did we know at the time that the longer- term aim of the museum was to create a 1950s town, in which a recreation of the original Cornish family home from 33 Bishops Close Street would become an integral part of the development. You can view the original research document produced by staff at the museum by visiting www.normancornish.com Home Page, Partners, Beamish Museum and ‘click’ on Research Summary. A thorough and professional document.

The Cornish family re-located from Bishops Close Street to Whitworth Terrace in 1967 prior to demolition of the street to make way for the new Leisure Centre. Cornish’s studio is on long term loan at Spennymoor Town Hall at the ‘Coming Home’ exhibition. When the family lived in Bishops Close Street the bedroom was also the location of his make-shift studio and this is being re-created within the 1950s Town Front Street terrace exhibit. In the image from left to right are: No 2 Front Street, Elizabeth’s Hairdresser’s, John’s Café, 33 Bishops Close Street and Middleton’s Quality Fish and Chips.

Currently, all of the properties are at the ‘fitting out’ stage and working towards what was planned to be a provisional opening to the public towards the end of February 2022. However, recent circumstances surrounding the pandemic will once again sadly impact on the ‘last lap’ of this amazing project and it is impossible at this stage to predict the actual public opening date. Quality takes time and it is imperative that work on the project is finalised within a reasonable timescale, with assurances about public safety. Like so many other things at the moment we will have to wait just a little longer and continue to thank the staff at Beamish for keeping the spirit alive and the memories, as an inspiration to all of those who have shared an interest in the project. Some drawings from family life at Bishops Close Street are featured today.

Finally, something else to look forward to: there are several other exciting projects on the horizon and details will be published in the coming months.





A Christmas Message

Many visitors to the website and facebook followers have commented about how much they have enjoyed the weekly features which have taken readers behind the scenes and perhaps revealed more about Norman Cornish and his fascinating, yet challenging, journey from miner to professional artist. There will be more interesting articles from the archive to be published during 2022.

‘Mount Pleasant in Winter’ is an excellent example of a popular subject which was a personal favourite of Cornish. The scene is featured in detail in ‘Behind the Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ and it is accompanied by an account from Cornish regarding his thoughts about the composition and underlying concepts. The picture was also used by The Northern Echo to publicise their Christmas Magazine over 25 years ago and later, on the day of Cornish’s funeral, as a tribute, a full double- page spread in August 2014.

88 years ago the young Norman Cornish started work on Boxing Day, aged 14, at Dean and Chapter Colliery. Times were hard and there was widespread poverty. Twelve months ago we reflected about the unprecedented global circumstances which have created challenges for all of us, but once again the enduring flame of mutual support, community spirit and kindness hopefully will see us through.

At some point we will look back and be relieved that life has continued….. just as it did for the young Norman Cornish in 1933. Thank you all for your continuing support and interest in the life and times of Noman Cornish.

Best wishes to you, your family and friends from

Ann and Mike Thornton, Dorothy and John Cornish

Compliments of the season

Next post on January 3rd including the latest from Beamish Museum.



Social Realism

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 not only along the path to public exposure of his work, but also with a growing reputation through his 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,’ and 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 for him to embrace the modern art movement despite his love of a traditional approach to landscape and portraiture.

The ‘Social Realism’ exhibition marked the beginning of a period of 16 years where Cornish and Lowry exhibited together, continuing in 1952, with ‘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 Lollipop Man

Walking from his home in Whitworth Terrace, towards the town centre, Cornish would quickly be amongst several of his favourite subjects all of which became classic locations in his oeuvre. St Paul’s Church, Edward Street, Rosa Street School and Eddy’s Fish Shop were all within a few hundred yards of each other. Linking the end of Rosa Street to Clyde Terrace, was the Zebra Crossing, providing a safe passage for the children of Rosa Street School. This was also an obvious meeting point for dozens of parents and grandparents ‘meeting the bairns from school.’

For an artist of his calibre and interest in humanity the subject was like a magnet at various times of the year but always at ‘home time.’ In his own words:

“ A lollipop crossing is in daily use quite near to my house and I have often watched the children being safely shepherded across. It is now an accepted part of modern life and I felt it was important to record it in a painting.”

One day in August 2017, former BBC TV producer Val Morgan of Entilet Media was filming a documentary to accompany an exhibition at Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth, which represents the Estate of Norman Cornish. Val noticed that some of the lamp posts and chimney pots through the lens didn’t match the scene depicted in many versions of The Lollipop Man. This was actually an example of Cornish using artistic licence to create a scene with a balanced composition rather than a pictorial illustration.

The subject became a firm favourite of Cornish with so many excited children and anxious parents and grandparents waiting to ask the inevitable question; ‘ What have you done at school today?’ Many people have subsequently come forward to identify themselves as the Lollipop Man in the painting. It was a popular subject repeated in thousands of communities all over the UK and fondly remembered by so many people, but also interpreted by Cornish in so many different ways.

In 2005 an oil on canvas version was donated by Cornish to Spennymoor Town Council and it is currently hanging in the exhibition at the Bob Abley Gallery in Spennymoor Town Hall. The subject was an essential location to be included in the Norman Cornish Trail, and for those of a certain age, with a camera, there is an Abbey Road photo opportunity!

The Lollipop Man is included in the ‘Street Scenes’ section, of ‘Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ available at www.normancornish.com with a Foreword by Melvyn Bragg.





A Canny Hand:

Cornish’s work is noted for the quality of his drawings, often made quickly to catch a moment in time. His jacket was adapted by his wife Sarah who created a ‘poachers pocket’ on the inside, large enough to hold his sketchbook and Flo-master pen so that wherever he went his sketchbook and pen were always with him. During his era there were over 35 pubs in Spennymoor and at times they were busy with men not only ‘enjoying the craic’ but often playing dominoes or darts, which were a common feature in all of the pubs in the region and beyond.

A canny (good) hand would be a common term used by domino players in the pubs where the game flourished and sometimes involved competitions amongst the men. The ‘doms’ would often be held in both hands to shield the numbers on the domino pieces from other players. Experienced players could quietly guess the dominoes held by other players as the games progressed. The hands would deliberately rest on the edge of the table to avoid disclosure of ‘the hand’. Powerful hands from working men would nevertheless create a study in concentration, assessing the next move and a big decision.

Cornish blended in, he was ‘one of the lads.’ A few hours earlier he would most likely have been working underground, and when he sat down in a pub with his favourite bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale he would immediately begin to observe and absorb whatever human interaction emerged unscripted. A treasure trove for an artist of his calibre and uncanny ability to quickly record what was happening all around him. His ability to sketch and draw with speed and accuracy, to capture a moment in time, was fundamental towards his future success.

Cornish returned to the theme of the pub throughout his career. Bar scenes with individual character drawings, men playing dominoes, convivial conversations, and drawings of darts players. He also made detailed drawings of the beer pumps, furnishings, pint glasses and posters to ensure accuracy in his work. These features sometimes appear as individual component pictures because of their own special qualities and occasionally they are brought together in large composite paintings. Most of Cornish’s larger works involving many characters are constructed in this manner.

Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks is available at www.normancornish.com The book contains examples of the drawings and preparatory sketches alongside many of the completed paintings in bar scenes. The Foreword was written by Melvyn Bragg.






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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