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Parents: Jack and Florence

Norman Cornish was born in Oxford Street on the 18th of November 1919 and moved later to Bishops Close Street, adjacent to the gasworks, ironworks and railway embankment at the end of the street. Cornish shared the stone- terraced house with his parents Jack and Florence along with his younger brothers Tom, Jack, Jim, Billy, Bob and sister Ella.

The Times newspaper referred to Spennymoor as a place without a future, immersed in despair, desperation and futility. Housing conditions were primitive, no bathroom, gas lighting, and an outdoor earth closet. Epidemics of diphtheria, smallpox and scarlet fever were rife amongst the children.

In his autobiography ‘A Slice of Life,’ Cornish recalls that he only ever saw one book in his childhood home. Cornish’s father Jack was unemployed for some time during the Depression but eventually gained employment at Dean and Chapter Colliery. One of his father’s friends tried to persuade his father to allow Cornish to continue his education, but at the age of 14 he reluctantly took his young son to his colliery to get him ‘set on.’ He later started work on Boxing Day 1933, after walking three miles to the pit in the snow.

Florrie would always be busy seeing to the six boys and daughter Ella. Making clothes, ensuring meals were available and a plentiful supply of hot water for washing. The daily commitment to keep the family together and maintain some dignity must have been exhausting.

Cornish eventually gained permission to join the Sketching Club at The Spennymoor Settlement which he later described as, ’like crawling into a warm woolly sock after the pit’.

As his interest and skill in drawing developed, via the ‘Sketching Club’ at the Spennymoor Settlement, the advice from Bill Farrell to draw and paint what he knew became more significant and in his own words: ‘ Most of the members were steeped in landscape tradition but I’d rather draw things I saw in my house, like my mother preparing a meal or my father washing after coming back from the pit’.

Despite the harsh conditions he was later able to acquire a deep knowledge, of not only art history, but also literature and music. Cornish made the most of opportunities denied in his early years to become ‘well read’ and he could quote with confidence from Dickens and Shakespeare as well as enjoying his love of Classical Music and Opera.

The Spennymoor Settlement Blue Plaque.

The Spennymoor Settlement was established in 1930 with funds from the Pilgrim Trust and it became a focal point in the Spennymoor community. It was a time of depression and unemployment was rife. The future looked grim, but under the inspired leadership of W.G. (Bill) Farell, accompanied by his wife Betty, it became a cradle of creativity for local people that enabled them to express themselves in visual arts, performing arts and crafts.

On Saturday September 18th a long overdue Blue Plaque was unveiled on the wall of the Everyman Theatre by Lillian Whitehead the oldest member of the Settlement, aged 100 years. The Chair of the Settlement Pauline Storey, Louise Defty who is Chair of the Spennymoor Youth Theatre Group and Malcolm Marsden the Treasurer, also addressed the large gathering of invited guests. The theatre was the venue for the ceremony and celebration to mark the achievements of this very special community organisation and all of the people who have been involved from the beginning.

The Settlement and its activities are historically important for the talent nurtured and the mutual support provided during challenging times. Not all of the names of previous members could be included on the plaque, but four stand out who eventually went on to achieve national and international recognition, and great acclaim.

Norman Cornish MBE, Sid Chaplin OBE, Arnold Hadwin OBE, and Tom McGuinness.

Refreshments were provided for the guests and a special performance was presented by the members of the Spennymoor Youth Theatre Group.

Further information at

‘A Way to the Better’ written by Robert McManners and Gillian Wales is available from the Spennymoor Settlement at £12.

Behind The Scenes – Revealed:

Norman Cornish ‘Behind The Scenes – Revealed’ opened on Saturday morning at Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth for a period of three weeks. This special collection of pictures all feature in the book of the same name published in 2017, and they help to show the creative process used by Norman Cornish including preliminary drawings and completed works.

For those who are unable to travel to Cockermouth in Cumbria, the owners of the gallery, Steve and Christine Swallow, have facilitated a 3D 360 degree tour of the exhibition which you can access by clicking the link below.

Whilst this isn’t a substitute for an actual personal visit, it does enable a walk around the exhibition, zooming into the works and seeing them hung in a gallery context.

The exhibition runs until Friday 8th October and is open each week until then from Wednesday to Saturday inclusive.

Further details may be found at www.castlegatehouse gallery 01900 822149

A warm welcome awaits from Steve and Christine Swallow.

Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Centenary lecture 1919-2019

Scarth Hall, Staindrop, County Durham October 19th 7-30pm

An illustrated talk by Norman Cornish’s son – in law Mike Thornton

Tickets £ 5 available via: or

Norman Cornish MBE was perhaps the most significant artist to emerge from the North East of England in the 20th Century, and he recorded one of the most important passages in English history. Revealing predominantly unseen works, the talk covers many of the key moments in Cornish’s career including commissions such as The Durham Miners’ Gala Mural in 1962, Cornish in Paris in 1967 and two commissions for The Port of Tyne Authority in 1982. The talk also includes images of life in his family home from the 50 s and 60s in Spennymoor, which is being recreated at Beamish Museum to open in 2022.

A story of great determination and resilience to overcome adversity and prejudice on his journey to become a professional artist.

Please arrive early. Doors and bar open from 7pm.

Heroines of the Coalfield

One of the essays in ‘Behind The Scenes the Norman Cornish Sketchbooks’ was written by Pam Royle who until recently (retired) was Main Presenter ITV News, Tyne Tees and Border. Pam first met Cornish in 2009 for an arranged interview which was broadcast to celebrate ‘Norman Cornish at Ninety’ at the University of Northumbria Gallery, now known as Gallery North. This was one of dozens of broadcasts Cornish participated in the first being at Alexandra Palace Studio, North London, in 1947.

During the interview with Pam Royle they discussed the role of women in the coalfield and how tough it was for a woman to look after both family and home in a pit village. In his own words, “ Everything was done by hand, the washing, the cleaning, the cooking and looking after the family. There was no rest!”

Cornish often drew his mother working, and it was no surprise that the working day of women was actually much longer than the miners who typically worked an eight –hour shift. Coal miners’ wives also had to cope with the demands of two World Wars and the challenges of inadequate water supplies, sewerage systems and earth closets in outside toilets. Public health services were not fully developed and on one occasion in Bishops Close Street a surgeon was summoned from Newcastle to perform a leg amputation on a kitchen table.

On a daily basis women would never know whether their husbands would return from work, such was the frequency of fatal accidents underground caused by gas explosions and collapsed tunnels. In his own words;

“ I many times drew and painted pictures of my wife Sarah, when she was busy with household chores, especially when she was knitting. I felt her prayer-like attitude gave the pose of sanctity and her knitting was her way of praying really, doing her best to keep our home and children together. This portrait represents a pose which was typical of thousands of women who were heroines of the coalfield.”

On the 4th of November 2013, Pam Royle recorded the final television interview, which consisted of Cornish talking about some of his favourite paintings, despite his declining health and well-being. Norman Cornish died on August 1st 2014.

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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