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Train of Thought: from writer Michael Chaplin

Greetings all.

This is just to say that my friend Birtley Aris and I published a little book a few months ago which you might possibly like to get your hands on.

To explain: halfway through lockdown we realised that among the many things we were missing was going places, especially on the iron rails. So I sat down and wrote an essay about the role of the railways in my life and their social and cultural impact on this country, this corner of it in particular. Birtley then created a series of fine illustrations to go with the words.

Our main motivation was to raise a little money for the Newcastle West End Food- Bank, where I’ve done a bit of volunteering in the past and seen for myself the growing demand for its services, especially over the last nine months. So far, 650 copies have been sold and over £7,000 raised.

'Train Of Thought' is a small book consisting of a 4,000 word essay written by Michael Chaplin and a series of delightfully evocative illustrations by Birtley. The price of the book is £5 plus the cost of first class post and packaging. If you would like to order a signed copy then email Michael at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further details and arrangements.

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.

The Sailors’ Bethel

The Sailors’ Bethel opened in 1877 and can be seen at the Newcastle quayside. Bethel is Hebrew for ‘House of God’ and in the 130 years of its existence this building has served as a nonconformist chapel, a community centre, A Danish seamen’s church and more recently as offices.

In the late 19th century regular trade between Newcastle and Danish ports resulted in cargoes of butter, eggs, and fresh meat arriving at the mouth of the Ouseburn, and the Sailors’ Bethel was the ideal place for the Danish seamen to stay overnight whilst their cargo was unloaded.

During the 1960s the chapel became a subject of interest for both L.S. Lowry and Norman Cornish as contemporaries, exhibiting regularly at the Stone Gallery where Mick and Tilly Marsahll (owners of the gallery) acted as agents on behalf of both artists. Cornish used to visit the Stone Gallery at weekends and Lowry was a frequent visitor to the gallery although his accommodation was at the Seaburn Hotel near Sunderland. Both artists were active in and around Tyneside and the coast, deriving inspiration from people and places. Lowry painted his version of ‘Old Chapel’ in 1965 and the original is in the collection of the Laing Art Gallery. Lowry used his characteristic style, which he developed to suit the industrial and city subjects he generally painted, with a white background and limited palette of five colours: ivory black, vermillion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white.

Cornish first exhibited at the Laing Art Gallery in 1940 with his first portrait in oils, ‘My Sister Ella’. His version of the Sailors’ Bethel was only discovered in 2014 but was most likely produced during his journeys around Tyneside in the 60s.

Each version reflects the different styles and interpretation by both artists. With Cornish it is the rapid sketch capturing a moment in time using his Flo-master pen and watercolour added to the final version. With Lowry it was the attraction of the unusual architecture of the building. Similar subjects engaged both artists at different times in the Tyneside area, including All Saints church in Newcastle and the Groyne and Pier at South Shields.

According to Lowry, he generally invented the figures in his pictures. Cornish’s sketchbooks contain dozens of observations of people in different settings who often appear at a later stage in his paintings. 30 of Cornish’s drawings and paintings, inspired by locations in Newcastle and the pier at South Shields, feature significantly in Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks which may be purchased at

The Definitive Collection

The culmination of the Norman Cornish Centenary Year was the opening of The Definitive Collection at The Bowes Museum on 16th November 2019. The exhibition opened to wide acclaim from the national press and media with a standout contribution from BBC Radio 4 Today, following a visit from their team during ‘the hanging’ of the exhibition. The broadcast (4 minutes), to over 7 million listeners, featured an interview with Professor Jean Brown of Northumbria University who regarded Cornish’s work as being ‘up there with Rembrandt, Degas and Lautrec’. To hear the broadcast follow the link: Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection.

All visitor records at The Bowes Museum have been broken and currently the exhibition has been enjoyed by 51,000 people who have travelled from all points of the compass to enjoy the exhibits. A small selection of comments follows:

I came by train from London just to see this and it’s been an amazing experience.

I came up from West Sussex just for this exhibition and it was well worth it.

The work of Norman Cornish helped me gain greater insight into the lives of my forbears.

I found it very moving, as well as informative.

Stunning originals-wow! Stunning art that really portrays his place and time.

None of us anticipated the events of the past 12 months with an extension to the exhibition requested until May 17th followed by a period of closure, and then a re-opening on August 1st until January 17th 2021. The interruption generated some creative responses on- line to maintain public interest, with a virtual tour accompanied by John and Dorothy Cornish plus a pre-recorded centenary lecture from Mike Thornton.

In addition, the staff at The Bowes Museum created an extensive outreach programme of community arts events and master classes. In total, 34 activities with 2,092 participants who enjoyed the workshops, gallery based activities and school visits. One example was the ‘Our Street’ project which encouraged people to capture an aspect of where they lived through their eyes, translated into drawings or photographs. A huge thankyou to those who delivered the sessions, and the participants who were inspired by Cornish’s work, to ‘get involved.’

Recently, Beverly Knight, of Darcus arts magazine, interviewed John Cornish in honour of the significance of the exhibition and the stature of The Bowes Museum. The full article is reproduced with kind permission of Darcus by following the link: Norman Cornish: The Definative Collection at The Bowes Museum.

A huge thankyou to all of those who have supported the exhibition and also to those behind the scenes who worked so hard to make it happen, and become one of the ‘must visit’ exhibitions of the past 12 months.

Breaking News: The Bowes Museum will be closed from November 4th until December 2nd

The Trimdon Level Crossing

Cornish’s evocative paintings and drawings provide an unrivalled social record, chronicling an important era in English history. His work is part of a deeper and more complex unravelling and re-evaluation of history.

His observations of people and places are a window into a world which no longer exists, but which he has immortalised for us all in moments captured in drawings and paintings. His journey, from former miner to professional artist, is a story of determination and resilience to overcome hardship and prejudice. Working class painters were deemed to be ‘Sunday painters’ and there was an assumption of naivety of such artists by the Arts establishment because of their occupation, as well as implied political associations. Cornish was refused support from the Miners Welfare Fund to attend The Slade School of Art in London and there are other examples of prejudice and resentment from some of his contemporaries because he lacked an academic background. Cornish was the victim of an unfortunate example of prejudice during the 1940s which was to eventually lead to a positive outcome.

Cornish met Sarah Bartley in 1944 at a dance at the Clarence Ballroom in Spennymoor.. The courtship lasted for two years until they were married at Rose Street Methodist Chapel in Trimdon. Sarah Lived in Trimdon and was a nurse during the war years and also an accomplished pianist. Trimdon was 8 miles from Spennymoor and Cornish would spend some time at the family home with Sarah and her 3 brothers and 3 sisters. Her father was a former miner and her grandfather was a founder member of the Blackhall Colliery band.

Coal mines in every town and village had connecting railway lines to transport the coal to coastal ports such as Tyne Dock. Level crossings, which still exist today on some railway lines, were a feature in many parts of the county. Whenever a locomotive hauling dozens of coal trucks was on the move the level crossing gates would close to traffic to enable safe movement. Cornish travelled to Trimdon from Spennymoor on the TMS (Trimdon Motor Services) and on many occasions the bus would have to stop at the Trimdon Grange level crossing and, waiting patiently, Cornish would take out his sketchbook and pen to capture this moment in time. The scene showing the level crossing, steam train, terraced houses and folks going about their daily lives is typical of scenes throughout County Durham in this particular slice of life.

Prior to meeting Sarah Bartley, Cornish had been engaged to a different young lady. He was rejected by her family because he was a miner.

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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