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Books – The Other Channel

One of the hallmarks of eminent artists and other famous people is that their life and work begins to appear in books. This began in 1989 for Cornish when his autobiography ‘A Slice of Life’ was published by Mallabar Contemporary Arts and included a Foreword by Melvyn Bragg. Second and third editions were published in 2006 and 2015 by Northumbria University, although the original images were not included in these abridged editions.

Cornish in Spennymoor was published in 1999 by Northumbria University and it included an introduction by Michael Chaplin. A selection of the drawings, sketches and reminiscences of Norman Cornish.

‘Paintings, Drawings and Sketches’ was published in 2005 by Northumbria University and included a collection of images and an essay by William Varley.

‘The Quintessential Cornish’ was published in 2009 by Gemini Productions. The Life and Work of Norman Cornish . A biography of Norman Cornish by Robert McManners and Gillian Wales.

‘A Shot Against Time’ was jointly published in 2010 by Northumbria University Gallery and Kings Place Gallery, London. It included a collection of images and essays by William Varley, Michael Chaplin, William Feaver and Dr Gail-Nina Anderson.

‘The Lost World of Norman Cornish’ was published in 2010 by Northumbria University Gallery. It was a collection of images and an essay by William Varley.

‘Behind The Scenes :The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ was published in September 2017 by Norman Cornish Ltd.

A facsimile edition of ‘A Slice of Life’ was published recently by Norman Cornish Ltd and featured across the region in The Northern Echo and County Durham Advertiser.

Over time, books which are no longer available acquire a life of their own via the internet and good quality second hand book stores. Their value also increases and several years ago an original signed copy of ‘A Slice of Life’ was in a shop in Leicester for a four figure sum.

A new book about Cornish and the stories and anecdotes about his life and work is currently under development for publication later this year. It is titled ‘The Test of Time,’ and will include many previously unseen images…… to be continued.

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 2023 along with some emerging projects.

‘Edward Street in Snow’ is an excellent example of a popular location that was a personal favourite of Cornish. This was from a time when snow and winter conditions were fairly reliable and the natural slope of the street made it a great place for ‘slides’, snowball fights, sledging and making snowmen. The children also had a lot of fun!

89 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. We would like to thank you for your continuing support and interest in the life and times of Norman Cornish – Wherever you live in the UK and to our readers in other parts of the world.

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 9th 2023

An Interesting Visitor

Throughout his life, Cornish enjoyed exposure to a variety of musical experiences. Some families owned pianos and accordions, and there were colliery brass bands associated with most coal mines. The standard of musicianship was very high. His wife Sarah was also immersed in music and her grandfather was a Cornet player and founder member of the Blackhall Colliery Band. Music performed in pubs often appeared in some of his drawings and he was an accomplished Banjo player.

Both Norman and Sarah enjoyed listening to music at home via their extensive collection of classical music (vinyl records) and they had a shared interest in opera. Although he had no interest in popular music Cornish nevertheless declared on one occasion his admiration for ‘Stranger On The Shore’ by Acker Bilk (1961) possibly identifying with the sentiment of the title. One day in 1969 a visitor arrived at the family home unannounced and a fascinating story was recalled some time later in his archive of afterthoughts. In his own words:

The doorbell rang and I went to open the door to find a rather tired looking man who asked me if this was Norman Cornish’s house. I invited him in, whereupon he informed me that a friend of his on Tyneside owned a drawing of mine and that he would very much like to buy one for himself. My wife Sarah went off to make him a cup of tea and sandwiches, as he seemed to need them. He then informed me that he was a musician. At this, I wondered what instrument he played and I was a bit ashamed to say that I wondered if he played piano in a local pub or something like that.

He then said that he played fiddle and asked if he could bring his violin into the house as it was valuable. On stepping outside, I discovered that he had an MG Midget sports car parked and he lifted a violin case from it. He said that he had been worried to leave it outside as he had worked extremely hard to buy it. Jokingly, I asked if it was a Stradivarius. He replied that it wasn’t but was equally valuable and was from Tudor times. Although it was old, he assured me that it played beautifully. To me, it looked like an old cricket bat. However, he played it a little and it sounded wonderful. I was intrigued by this man.

Anyway, he bought a drawing and off he went. A day or two later, a letter arrived containing a brochure about the ‘Aeolian Quartet’ outlining its success in major cities of the world. He had included a humble little note saying: Just to let you know what we do. This man’s name was Raymond Keenleyside and he was a violinist with the Aeolian Quartet which was generally considered one of the world’s best quartets. It was quite something to think that this man had actually played violin in our house.’

By a strange twist of fate, on the evening of August 1st 2014, just before Cornish passed away – ‘Stranger On The Shore,’ by Acker Bilk, was broadcast on BBC Radio 2.

Ray Keenleyside also accompanied Paul McCartney in 1993 ‘Give My Regards to Broad Street’ a solo studio album and film soundtrack.

Painting in Oils

Cornish’s early work included pencil drawings and watercolours as he gained invaluable experience en plein air with the members of The Spennymoor Settlement Sketching Club. This approach enabled the artists to work outdoors and remove any visual limitations experienced working indoors.

The cost of materials to broaden the experience of the members of the Sketching Club was often prohibitive. However, as their reputations grew across the region via the annual exhibitions, an enthusiastic admirer of Cornish’s work donated 10 Guineas to Bill Farrell, Warden of The Settlement, to purchase oil paints for the benefit of the members of Sketching Club. The benefactor was Mrs. H.C. Baker- Baker, of Elemore Hall, County Durham: ‘a charming, gentle, cultured woman and a good friend of the Spennymoor Settlement.’

Suddenly, a new dimension to Cornish’s early work was enabled via this philanthropic gesture and Cornish was quick to respond with his first oil painting, a study of ‘My Sister Ella.’ This was painted over several days in his parent’s bedroom and exhibited in 1940: ‘Works of Artists of the Northern Counties annual exhibition’ in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, often referred to as the ‘Royal Academy of the North.’

Painting in oils was a huge step forward for the young Cornish and an approach which required a new technique as well as additional materials such as canvas, stretchers, brushes, oil paints in tubes, palette knives, primer (first coat of paint on the canvas),and turps for cleaning. Together these materials emitted an unpleasant odour and a supportive wife was essential!

A regional newspaper article in 1960 referred to Sarah Cornish as an understanding woman who is dedicated to her home, husband and family. Sarah Cornish is essentially patient and sympathetic, otherwise she would not tolerate the paint splashed wallpaper, the brushes, canvasses and sketches amongst cosmetics on her dressing table.

The acquisition of the materials to work in oils and the opportunity to develop this aspect of his work began to exert a profound influence upon his development as an artist. A whole new dimension to his subjects and their visual interpretation emerged as his career developed in the post war era. Examples of Cornish’s oil paintings are included in the Permanent Collections at The Laing Art Gallery, Northumbria University and in many public and private collections throughout the UK and beyond.

Behind The Scenes: Berriman’s Chip Van

Cornish’s work provides an important social record of the cultural landscape of his era and there is no finer example than Berriman’s chip van. An early version of the modern ‘takeaway’ but forever immortalised as an icon of a period of time in Spennymoor. The chip van had several locations during its life-time but eventually located near Thomas Street, a short distance from Bishop’s Close Street and remembered as one of the locations on the Norman Cornish Trail.

Not only did the three Berriman brothers grow their own potatoes, they brought them to the chip van ready peeled and the fishcakes were later supplied from Hanselman’s fish shop, across the road on the High Street. Sue Snowden (nee Hanselman) Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, remembers with pride and affection how her father supplied fishcakes of the finest quality to the Berriman brothers.

The chip van was acquired by Beamish Museum in 1972 when the brothers retired. After a number of years the restoration was undertaken by Staingate Restorations so that it would become available in the museum as part of the collection. The chip van made a nostalgic return to Spennymoor in 2011 for three days at Rosa Street School and Cornish was able to spend some time talking to visitors and staff from Beamish, sharing his memories. Cornish and the famous chip van later appeared in a BBC documentary with Dan Cruickshank who discussed this piece of local history in the artist’s studio. Berriman’s Chip Van is now parked near the High Street in the 1950s Town at Beamish Museum where you can also visit 33 Bishops Close Street, the Cornish family home from 1953 until 1967.

In his own words:

The chip van used to belong to George Kirtley but was taken over by the Berriman family and changed appearance. They kept all of the cooking pots, the pans, the chip maker and the little cupboards where the potatoes were kept. I knew the family. They used to live in Duncombe Street, opposite the Town Hall, and had a yard where the horses were kept. They also used to deliver coal and had a funeral business with black horses and black hearses. On a Saturday night when everything was closed, they would use a horse to bring the chip van back to their yard for safe keeping and bring it out next morning. The three brothers grew their own potatoes and when they were working, one was slicing the potatoes, one serving and the other in the pub!

I knew all three lads, Dougy the oldest, Billy and Dickie. They had another older brother I never actually knew until I met him down the pit as we were coming out.

Because I am an artist who paints people, this chip van is a must, an obvious good subject for a painting.

Berriman’s Chip Van is one of the subjects featured with additional drawings and images in Behind the Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks available on line at

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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