Chinnor & District

Norman Cornish of Spennymoor

Norman Cornish of Spennymoor 1919 – 2014 Summary

Norman Cornish is one of the most sought-after contemporary artists in the country. For over 50 years his images of mining life and observations of social life are a chronicle of an important time in history and many of his street scenes are the only record of a time and place that no longer exist. This miner for 33 years was a self-taught artist and his artwork could stand against the work of Rembrandt and Degas.

Cornish was born in Spennymoor which by the 1900s was a depressed colliery and steelworks town where most men worked as miners some 3 miles away in neighbouring pit villages such as Ferryhill at the Dean and Chapter coalmine. He was the eldest of 7 children, loved drawing for which he showed talent with an ambition to become an artist, passed the 11 plus but his father’s unemployment meant at the age of 14 he signed on to become a miner to support the family as the breadwinner and remained a miner for the next 33 years.

He continued to sketch and paint producing self -portraits, married in 1946 and in the same year the Director of the National Coal Board came to see his solo exhibition and bought 5 pictures to hang in the Coal Board headquarters at Hobart House in London.

His first big break came when he was asked to design 2 miners banners for the Durham Miners Gala for the Western Lodge and Tudhoe mines in 1957 and 1958 respectively.

By the 1960s he was selling his work from home and by word of mouth and The Stone Gallery in Newcastle acted as his agent for the next 22 years. Edward Heath PM bought 2 of his paintings, which as a staunch Labour supporter gave Norman great satisfaction!

Norman’s paintings and sketches recorded the disappearing world of Spennymoor – the streets, houses, children playing, local characters, gossips, street traders, sketches of domestic and family scenes and miners at work and leisure. Some of his iconic paintings are of Bar Scenes and miners walking on the Pit Road.

His major break came in 1962 when he was asked to paint the Miners Gala Mural for Durham County Hall. The mural was opened in 1964 by Prince Phillip and congratulations poured in. After much persuasion Norman left the pits aged 47 to become a full -time artist. In 1967 he moved with his wife Sarah and their 2 children to a 4 bedroomed house where he created a studio and storeroom for his art, with a room each for his children John and Ann and a garden.

In 1995 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Northumbria which houses a body of his work for their permanent collection. He lunched with The Queen and Peter Ustinov Chancellor of the University of Northumberland in 2002 followed by an MBE in 2008 for lifelong services to art.

Norman Cornish died on August 1st 2014 aged 94. His studio and first home at Bishops Close Street is recreated in The Beamish museum

Ros Noy ( February 2021)

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