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The Pony Putter

Cornish started work on Boxing Day 1933 aged 14 years. The landscape was dominated by coal mines in every direction and ‘The Times’ newspaper referred to County Durham as ‘little more than one huge colliery.’

In one sense, although denied the opportunity of continuing education, he was fortunate to gain work in a viable pit at a time when unemployment in the area reached 27% of the workforce. While the Dean and Chapter Colliery had no ‘disasters’ (officially five or more killed together, by gas or explosion) the records of 177 fatalities meant that the mine was referred to as ‘the Butchers Shop.’ This was an ominous title for the 2,135 men working underground. A few years after the young Cornish started work, over 3,000 tons of coal were being produced each day with two thirds of it hand hewn.

His first job when he was set on (a local term meaning to start work) was as a datal lad, paid at a daily rate, employed as a Pony Putter- sitting low on the limbers (wooden shafts connecting the pit pony to the coal tub) to avoid decapitation.

Cornish lived in two worlds. The dilemma for the young Cornish was that he was fascinated by aesthetics and art appreciation with a desire to record the industrial scene around him, when simultaneously the mine owners were only interested in coal production. Inspired by his favourite artist Rembrandt, Cornish’s attention was attracted to the humble and mundane activities of everyday life. The drawings and paintings record a job which has passed into history.

All aspects of coal mining, the journey to and from work, the gantry, working underground, and life in mining communities, are featured in ‘Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ available by visiting

A Slice of Life

The late 1980s were a period of reflection for Cornish who had become an established professional artist. In his lifetime friends would be intrigued by his anecdotes relating his journey through life and the challenges he had to overcome along the way. Friends would often say ‘why don’t you write these things down?’

One dull day in 1987 when it was too dark to work in his studio he sat down for the first time and began to write his memoirs. The first attempt was abandoned, but as his confidence grew the words flowed from the memories and the book ‘A Slice of Life’ emerged. The title was taken from his concept of all life as a continuum from which he envisaged each individual having his own piece, his own ‘slice’ from the inevitable passage of time.

‘A Slice of Life’ was published by his friend Bill Mallabar who was also a graphic designer. The whole process took two years and the book was published to coincide with his 70th birthday in 1989. Simultaneously the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Alderman Theresa Russell, introduced Cornish to the Director of the Polytechnic Gallery which later became The University of Northumbria Gallery. A new exhibition was planned to celebrate his 70th birthday and this also marked the beginning of a long and successful relationship with the University Gallery until it closed in 2015.

In 1991 Bill Mallabar donated a Cornish painting, ‘Pit Road with Telegraph Poles and Lights’ to the University Gallery as a tribute to his mother who had died during the previous year. This generous gift was the inception of The Permanent Collection at Northumbria University and further details may be found at

‘A Slice of Life’ quickly sold out and it was re-issued in 2006 and 2015 but without most of the original images. In 2021 John and Dorothy Cornish started the long and arduous task of creating a facsimile edition of the original autobiography published 33 years ago. There were many technical challenges moving from traditional printing processes to modern technology.

Norman Cornish described his original efforts as a ‘labour of love’ and similar sentiments have been expressed by John and Dorothy Cornish during the past 12 months.

‘A Slice of Life’ will be published on October 3rd and will be available to purchase at priced £17 and also in selected independent bookshops from mid- October.

The Local Collieries

In 1919, the year of Cornish’s birth, there were a million coal miners in Great Britain. Almost a quarter of them, some 223,000, worked in the North East of England. In County Durham a large percentage of the workforce was employed directly in mining and related industries. Mining, with its pit heaps, pit head gear and rows of mining cottages, dominated the physical and mental landscape of the county. Within a five miles radius of Dean and Chapter Colliery there were over a 135 ‘collieries and pits,’ including brickworks, quarries and coking plants at varying times.

It was hardly surprising that the immediate environment was to make a crucial impact on his early responses as an artist. The smoke and sounds of the railway engines hissing, coal trucks, colliery buzzers, miners’ boots on the gantry steps and the daily ‘knockers up’ combined to create an industrial cacophony. The impact upon the environment and the men was pervasive.

Cornish started work at Dean and Chapter Colliery on Boxing Day 1933, aged 14, where there were 2,135 men and boys working underground and 538 working above ground. By 1937 the workforce was producing 3,000 tons of coal per day- a third of it machine mined and the rest hand hewn. The pit was referred to as ‘the Butcher’s shop’ and accidents, including fatalities, were frequent.

He worked at the Dean and Chapter colliery until 1962 when he was transferred to Mainsforth where he was commissioned by Durham County Council to paint the mural for the new County Hall. He was later transferred to Tudhoe Mill Drift (whose banner he had designed), a much safer pit where he worked for two and a half years. Cornish’s final pit was Tudhoe Park Drift where conditions were very wet and his increasing lower back pain from working underground for over thirty years was the final straw!

Following persuasion from his wife Sarah, and constant pressure from the owners of the Stone Gallery in Newcastle, he decided to become a full time professional artist. To associate Cornish exclusively with his depiction of life in mining communities devalues his vast skill and achievements as a leading artist of the 20th century whose work may be found in public and private collections throughout the UK and beyond.

In the early days of his career as an artist there was an inevitability that the pits where he worked and some others in the surrounding area would eventually feature as part of the social record of his life and times.

A Bedroom Studio

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.

Cornish was born in 1919 in Spennymoor, County Durham, 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.

He joined the Spennymoor Settlement Sketching club aged 15 in 1934 after initially being turned away for being too young! The impact of the advice, activities and experience of being a member is well documented. His personal circumstances were more than challenging but he was determined to succeed despite the enormous barriers encountered daily.

Cornish’s modest income as a miner was a constraint upon the acquisition of materials and a further dilemma existed between his interest in art and aesthetics when faced with the hazards he found when working and surviving underground. ‘Treated like slaves, and spoken to like convicts,’ such was the reality of being a miner, which also had a significant impact upon his work and interpretation of his subjects. How on earth did he cope ?

His first attempt at an oil painting ‘My Sister Ella’ (1940) was completed over three sessions in his parent’s bedroom. When Norman and Sarah moved to 33 Bishops Close Street in 1954 the only solution to create a space to work in was to move his easel and materials into their bedroom. Sarah was very tolerant and supportive under the circumstances. There were materials, canvas, sketchbooks, frames, ink for his Flo-master pens, boards, incomplete paintings, pastels and the smell of oil paints and Turps for cleaning brushes. The smell was often overpowering. When he was commissioned to paint the Mural one of the preliminary versions was scaled to 300cm and placed from the bedroom window sill to the top of the stairs via an open door. To climb into bed Sarah sometimes had to crawl over or under the bed!

The family moved to Whitworth Terrace in 1967 where there was sufficient space to convert a former Methodist Minister’s office into a studio, and this is what is displayed at Spennymoor Town Hall. The bedroom studio from Bishops Close Street has been re-created at Beamish Museum and it is an authentic replica but without the smell of oil paints and other materials. The paintings scattered in the corner of the room are reproductions of the original works.

Despite the obstacles to success a rare talent emerged in the post war years. He developed a burgeoning national reputation which placed further pressure on his future direction. Circumstances, and support from Sarah, enabled his progression to become a professional artist in 1966, a journey which was to span a further forty six years until he finally stopped working in 2012. He worked for more years as a professional artist than he did as a miner underground, a fact often overlooked. In the 21st century it is not uncommon to find talented young people working from their bedroom on their journey to future success.

Realism to Abstraction

The recent return of the BBC programme ‘Fake or Fortune,’ episode 1, featured a recently discovered painting on the bedroom wall of a house in Surrey. The decision of the ‘experts’ revealed that it was most probably a collaborative piece by Ben Nicholson and Fred Murray. A number of geometric shapes and bright colours which were evident in Nicholson’s other works were depicted in this painting.

Paintings by Cornish and Nicholson actually featured together in two different exhibitions during the 1950s and 60s. The first occasion was in 1952 at ‘The New Barrington Galleries’ in London: ‘The Mirror and The Square- Realism to Abstraction.’ Other artists included LS Lowry, Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland and Barbara Hepworth. Cornish exhibited ‘Miners Going in Bye’ and Nicholson exhibited ‘White Relief.’

The post- war era was a period of rapid social change and art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism to name but a few, continued to evolve. Cubism was an early 20th Century style and movement in which perspective with a single viewpoint was abandoned and use was made of simple geometric shapes, interlocking planes and later collage. Cornish was well aware of these developments but declined to follow the popular trends. However, any aspiring artist in art school unwilling to follow ‘the trend’ was often ostracised by lecturers. This was the experience of John Peace, a contemporary of Cornish. Meanwhile, Cornish and Lowry continued to develop their own distinctive styles based around social realism, and without veering towards abstraction.

The Stone Gallery Mixed exhibition in1967 included ‘The Cup’ by Ben Nicholson and ‘The Gantry’ by Cornish, an earlier version of which was purchased by Lowry in 1964.The journey by Cornish from miner to professional artist was a story of great determination and resilience to overcome hardship and prejudice. Cornish was denied a place at ‘The Slade School of Art’ in London due to the outbreak of World War 2 as mining was a reserved occupation. Nicholson, however, trained as an artist at ‘The Slade School of Art,’ 1910-11, although he apparently spent more time during his year at Slade playing billiards than painting or drawing. He later claimed that the changing relationship of the coloured balls were of more appeal to his aesthetic sense. Nicholson was married three times and produced six children. His second wife was the artist Barbara Hepworth.

During the 50s and 60s Cornish’s reputation continued to grow, not only as an artist of considerable talent but also as an authority on art history, aesthetics, literature, music and contemporary matters. He was often invited to TV and radio discussions, along with other eminent practitioners, and occasionally as a guest speaker at conferences and weekend workshops. One such event was held at Ormesby Hall on July 4th 1968 and was organised by the ‘Federation of Northern Arts,’ later to become Northern Arts and Arts Council North. He always conducted himself with great dignity and his lecture notes have recently been transcribed. His final statement to the invited audience is presented here for the first time and reveals his thoughts about the difference between decoration, illustration and art in a powerful summary.

‘If a painting carries nothing derived from life experiences it is sheer decoration. If on the other hand it merely copies life without translating such experiences into forms proper to its medium it is nothing more than illustration paler than life, and without the impact or the new experience implicit in any work to which we give the name of art.’

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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