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Observations of People

The ability of an artist to sketch and draw with speed and accuracy and to capture a moment in time is fundamental to future success and forms the basis upon which all else follows.

The early years of Cornish’s life and career were particularly significant in the development of his sketches and carefully observed drawings. His favourite medium was the Flo-master pen – an early version of the modern fibre-tipped pen. The pen could be re-filled and nibs inter-changed as required. The width of the strokes and intensity of the ink could be controlled by applying pressure, or a light touch. Accuracy was important as the indelible ink dried on the surface of the paper within two seconds. Tiny black dots are sometimes visible on some drawings, as he touched the paper with the pen to stimulate the flow of ink.

Cornish’s wife, Sarah, adapted his jacket with a ‘poacher’s pocket’ large enough to hold his sketchbook and pen, so that wherever he went the sketchbook and pen were always immediately accessible. This meant that whenever something of interest caught his attention he was quickly able to access materials to record a particular moment in time.

Cornish often said that painting and drawing was like an itch that had to be scratched. Rarely, can one town and its people have received so much attention from an individual artist, with over 5,000 drawings and water-colours in the sketchbooks which are in the archive at Northumbria University in Newcastle.

Cornish also drew on scraps of paper, newspaper, The Radio Times and many other surfaces. A recent revelation was a drawing on the back of a box of Cadbury’s chocolates. The cost of art materials became a constraint on his limited budget during this period of his development.

Cornish was aware of the contribution his work could make to both the history and sociology of mining communities and the sketchbooks are a valuable resource far beyond the world of art.

They provide a remarkable visual journal of his work, capturing and recording the people and places in and around Spennymoor, County Durham and across the region. Many of the drawings subsequently provided the material for his paintings.

The sketchbooks provided the inspiration for the publication of ‘Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’, which explores the relationship between the original drawings and related completed works.

Beyond the Pit Road

Cornish trudged the pit road to Dean and Chapter Colliery at Ferryhill for over thirty years in all weathers, all seasons and at all times of the night and day. The walk to work was almost three miles each way leading from the end of Bishop’s Close Street, under the railway bridge and passing a harsh industrial landscape on one side, contrasting with agricultural tranquillity on the other side….. but what lay beyond the pit road ?

Ferryhill is located on a high point on the Magnesian Limestone ridge which extends across the county from the east and which is visible at many locations. There is a natural gap in the ridge near Ferryhill Station which is where the main east coast rail line passes through. Durham Cathedral is visible from the ridge which continues to Kirk Merrington where the church is a landmark feature from many points in the county. The medieval Great North Road passes through a ‘cut’ in the ridge and is now classed as the A167. The remnants of the Dean and Chapter ‘pit heap’ have been landscaped but the outline shape remains visible. Ferryhill was also surrounded by other collieries such as Metal Bridge (drift mine), West Cornforth, Mainsforth, Chilton, Leasingthorne and Westerton.

In 1962 Cornish transferred to Mainsforth Colliery as some collieries became exhausted of coal reserves and the pit bus would collect the men at various points to take them to work. Mainsforth Colliery was the pit where Cornish was working when he received the call from Durham County Council to request that he ‘paint a mural’ to commemorate the opening of the new County Hall.

Cornish’s new journey to work meant that the bus would take him up Durham Road in Ferryhill into the village (as it was known) and then descend to Ferryhill Station and Mainsforth Colliery. Ferryhill was also the location of the largest Working Men’s Club in the region and a ‘wit’ once observed that hundreds would be homeless if it ever closed. The Friday market was a popular feature of life in ‘the village’ and some Ferryhill residents went on to achieve fame with some interesting careers such as: Jack Scott BBC weatherman for many years, Alan White, drummer with the Plastic Ono Band, George Harrison, and Yes. Sid Chaplin OBE lived in Gladstone Street in Deanbank during the 40s and 50s. He also worked at Dean and Chapter Colliery and he was a personal friend and contemporary of Cornish at The Spennymoor Settlement.

The Ferryhill connection continued and several years ago BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of plays by Michael Chaplin called ‘The Ferryhill Philosophers,’ where an ex miner discusses some of life’s big questions with a philosopher from up the road at Durham University. Part of the answer to the big question, ‘what lies beyond the pit road ?’ can also be seen in Cornish’s paintings from a high view point at the top of Durham Road looking back at Dean and Chapter Colliery and ‘market day’ in the village.

Darning Socks and Courting

There were two attempts made to help Cornish go to art school. The first in 1939 was an application to the Slade in London. The second in 1942, was to Newcastle University where Robert Lyon, who had crucially supported the Ashington Group, was Head of Painting. Both applications for financial assistance were rejected by the Miners’ Welfare Fund which claimed that such help was ‘not part of their brief’.’

The setbacks may have been a blessing in disguise. Painting the life he knew with integrity was fundamental to Cornish’s motivation and ‘dabbling’ in alternative theories and modern art may well have damaged his approach, which was based upon the advice of Bill Farrell at the Spennymoor Settlement.

Denied this opportunity to attend a prestigious art school was, in hindsight, to become a blessing in disguise, as his young wife Sarah became his muse and the subject of many paintings and drawings. They met at a ballroom in Spennymoor in 1944 and following two years of ‘courting’ they married in 1946. Life drawing classes were a foundation of art college teaching but his observations of ‘real life’ happening at home, at work and in the community were to become the hallmark of his approach to painting and drawing. Cornish was surrounded on a daily basis by Sarah going about the typical tasks within a young family: preparing the vegetables, knitting, ‘bathing the bairns’ in the tin bath, scrubbing the front door step, a bedtime story, words of comfort. They all became subjects of interest following, ’hold it there.’ or ‘don’t move,’ as the position was held while the drawing was completed.

In his own words: “ Many times I drew and painted pictures of my wife Sarah, when she was busy with household chores, especially when she was knitting. I felt that her prayer-like attitudes gave the pose a sense of sanctity, and knitting was her way of praying, really doing her best to keep our home and children together.”

Little did Sarah know that her daily tasks , including ‘darning socks’ would eventually become the subject of her husband’s work as an artist and that she would grow into a pivotal role in his journey to become a professional artist. Sarah encouraged Cornish to leave mining in 1966. He was offered a part-time role at Sunderland Art College where one of his responsibilities was to teach ‘life drawing,’ although there was some resentment from some staff and some students because he didn’t have an academic background !

Please explain ‘courting’ and ‘darning socks’ to the younger members of your family.

A Remarkable Story

The picture featured today has always been known as ‘Dog Talk,’ and some versions are listed as ‘Two men at the bar with dog’. At the ‘Shapes of Cornish’ exhibition in 2016 at the Greenfield Gallery in Newton Aycliffe, a silence descended over the invited guests for the ‘private view’ as they prepared to hear the opening remarks from a local dignitary…. a former resident of Spennymoor and friend of Cornish. He caught sight of that particular picture in the corner of the gallery and immediately abandoned his prepared comments as he exclaimed to the astonishment of the guests, ”I know those two, Joe Hughes and Tosser Angus!” The local dignitary then proceeded with what can best be described as a remarkable story

As young teenagers, they both worked underground at Whitworth Colliery in Spennymoor and life was hard. The lads were also members of the Territorial Army and one of the attractions of being in the TA was the annual camp at the end of August that in 1939 was held at Scarborough. With WW2 being imminent both men were immediately conscripted as full- time soldiers into the Durham Light Infantry, rather than the reserved occupations such as coal mining at Whitworth Colliery. The men saw action in France and Belgium before being evacuated from Dunkirk, and were amongst the last of the men to leave the beaches in ‘C’ Company 6th Battalion DLI. They subsequently saw action throughout WW2 at Mareth (hand to hand fighting) Tunisia, and Primasole Bridge during the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Fortunately, both men survived without a scratch and returned home to resume their lives working underground at Whitworth Colliery.

The dog at their side was no ordinary dog….His name was Piper- following the tradition of dogs being named after musical instruments in the DLI. Piper was acquired by Joe as a pup to ‘settle a debt’ and eventually became one of the top racing greyhounds in England, travelling countrywide in order to compete. From the cash ‘winnings,’ gained by Piper, Joe Hughes and his wife were able to indulge themselves in a holiday to Rome.

The story and the images are all featured in ‘Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ and they provide another example of Cornish’s creative process of fine tuning the composition, but also the characters being worked into the much larger bar scenes that are often referred to as ‘conversation pieces,’ where the subjects appear to interact with each other.

A Famous Fairground

Many of the paintings and drawings by Norman Cornish can be identified in terms of time and place along with an interpretation or narrative. This has never been a simple challenge when the subject is unusual but, nevertheless, acquiring the story behind the picture has always been an intriguing task. A very good example may be found on page 129 in ‘The Quintessential Cornish’ - Traction Engine - Pastel, Private Collection. A slightly different version was uncovered in the archive of images of early work. One of the most famous fairgrounds in the country was resident in Spennymoor and the search for an answer could lead only to one man.

John Culine MBE was born in 1947 into a fairground family, in a caravan in Jubilee Park in Spennymoor. He attended King Street School and until recently he was president of the Showman’s Guild, the national body representing the fairground industry. He was a Town Councillor for 18 years and Mayor in 2004- 05 as well as being an MBE for services to ‘showmen and the community.’ Family members range from Alice Culine who crossed Bridlington harbour on a tightrope to Cliff Culine who appeared with William Cody (Buffalo Bill) on Durham Sands in 1894 as a knife and tomahawk thrower when Cody brought his ‘Wild West’ show to England.

John Culine and Norman Cornish were well known to each other and on one occasion Cornish was asked to paint some cartoon figures onto one of the fairground rides. The task was completed reluctantly and details remain shrouded in secrecy! However, two pictures did eventually emerge during the 1950s when the King Carnival Traction Engine was an obvious attraction during the two weeks when the fairground was in the Jubilee Park for the annual ‘Spenny Gala’ celebrations. One version records the atmosphere late in the evening and a similar version during daytime captures the ‘fun of the fair’ with waltzers, the chairoplanes, rodeo, Noah’s Ark Speedway, The Cake Walk, Shuggy Boats, Dodgems and test your strength.

A relatively unknown fact about the Showmen’s Guild was that it was a philanthropic organisation and during the world wars their lorries were donated to the government to help the war effort along with the purchase of 12 ambulances in the first World War and the cost of a Spitfire called ‘Fun of the Fair’ was donated to the Polish squadron during World War 2.

We’re not kings, we’re not queens, we’re the marvellous Culines said a Victorian Poster, a motto used by the family when they embarked on their life in the circus and fairground. A life that would encompass joy, sorrow, love, tragedy, and some incredible feats of showmanship. ‘From Fanfare to Funfare’ a book by John Clifford Culine MBE £14.50 is available from (National Fairground and Circus Archive) and when you look at the fairground pictures by Norman Cornish - every picture tells a story.

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.

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