Norman Cornish - A Man of Destiny

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.

Cornish belonged to a generation denied the opportunity of continuing with education, and he saw working from an early age as a duty to support his immediate family. Working class artists 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. In 1939 he was unable to accept a place to attend The Slade School of Fine Art in London because he was in a ‘reserved occupation.’ He left mining in 1966 and at Sunderland Art College in 1967 he was resented by some students, and some of his contemporaries, because he lacked an academic background!

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.

Despite the obstacles to success, a rare talent emerged in the post war years and a burgeoning national reputation which placed further pressure on his future direction. Circumstances, and support from his wife, 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.

Many people have grown to love and appreciate Cornish’s work- which has evolved into a regional archive. Not because they’d lived it, but because they absorbed the nuances from his art, and so connected with their past and what has made them who they are today. 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. His work helps us take pride in our own sense of place, belonging and identity which takes us to the very heart of heritage and culture - thus enabling a continuing and deepening emotional attachment by many of those who appreciate and enjoy his work and interest in his life.

A chronology charts the development of Cornish’s career by presenting the important events and moments at key stages in his life and his journey, which led eventually to national acclaim and academic awards from three regional universities.