Throughout 2019, Durham will be celebrating the life of of one of Durham's most remarkable artists - Norman Cornish and we are lucky enough to be able to share a series of blogs, giving a unique insight about the man himself by members of the Cornish family. 

John Cornish - Norman’s son in his father’s studio

Norman Cornish was born in Spennymoor, in the Vale of Durham in 1919 where he lived his whole lifetime. Marking 100 years since his birth, a series of exhibitions has been planned across the county in 2019.

His work leaves a wonderful legacy - an immediate and accessible social documentary of a bygone era. There can be few people who have contributed more to the region’s artistic and cultural identity.

The eldest of seven children, Norman had humble beginnings. Difficult economic circumstances meant that, aged 14, he was obliged to start his working life as a miner to help ease the family’s finances – an underground career which was to span some 30 or more years.

At about the same age, his passion and innate artistic ability found fulfilment and a means to progress when he joined the sketching club at the inspirational Spennymoor Settlement where the warden, Bill Farrell, advised the young boy to ‘paint what you know’. Indeed, Norman gained his inspiration from the world he knew – his own ‘slice of life’.

A small, industrial town in the midst of the Durham Coalfield may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for art, and some would describe it as ‘a narrow world’, but for Norman Cornish this was not a constraint - among the community he found an infinite variety of humanity for his subjects in the context of what was an all-pervading industrial landscape. “Spennymoor has all that an artist needs in order to depict humanity.” Norman Cornish

Norman had already established a significant artistic career when he finally left the pit in1966 and became a full-time professional artist, exhibiting across the region at The Stone Gallery, Newcastle and University of Northumbria Gallery, as well as London and across the north with contemporaries such as LS Lowry and Sheila Fell.

Fully immersed in his community, Norman Cornish found beauty in the life and shapes of the everyday. His drawings of characters in bars demonstrate his supreme skill in capturing not just a likeness but a complete attitude. His artwork is rich in emotion, evoking a strong attachment for many people - the images almost reaching out to invite the viewer in to his world.

Norman Cornish Artwork Spennymoor

This emotional attachment by many people to his art is one which the Centenary programme hopes to grow through its events and exhibitions - 

Spennymoor Town Hall & Gallery: Story of the Durham Miners’ Gala Mural (6 April - February 2020) 

This unique exhibition tells the story of a nine metre mural depicting the Durham Miners’ Gala, painted in 1963 and commissioned by Durham County Council for their County Hall building. With a captivating narrative, a range of preparatory works and correspondence, this exhibition reveals the challenges faced by the artist and how the mural marked the cornerstone of his career. 

The Norman Cornish Trail

Adding to Norman Cornish’s enduring legacy, visitors can now enjoy The Norman Cornsih Trail, a circular route which takes walkers around the artists home town, following in the artist’s footsteps and seeing where he gained his inspiration. 

Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland: Norman Cornish – A Slice of Life (6 April - January 2020)

A special exhibition co-curated by the Cornish family and community members, offering a new and fresh insight into Norman’s work, showing how his work continues to resonate with the very same community that lives on today. 

Miners Gala by Norman Cornsih

Gala Gallery, Durham City: Norman Cornish - The Portraits (30 June - 1 September)  

Portraiture was an important part of Norman Cornish’s artistic practice. This exhibition features a range of portraits of his family members, local characters, privately commissioned pieces and a selection of self-portraits.

Greenfield Gallery, Newton Aycliffe: Norman Cornish - A Man of Destiny (10 October - 11 December)

With an interesting narrative and key pieces of artwork, this exhibition highlights the determination and resilience the artist showed on his journey towards achieving professional status.

The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle: The Definitive Collection (16 November - 23 February 2020)

The Definitive Collection is a major retrospective telling the story of Norman’s enduring career and bringing together the most comprehensive range of works ever assembled, including some previously unseen pieces.

Palace Green, Durham City: Norman Cornsih - The Sketchbooks (16 November- 23 February 2020)

Before his death in 2014, Norman’s express wish was that his sketchbooks should ‘have a life of their own and be of interest to people’. It is the sketchbooks which form the focus of this unique exhibition at Palce Green Library. 

The John Kitson Archway - Spennymoor Town Hall

Plus later in the year visitors will also be able to visit a recreation of Norman Cornish’s former colliery home at Beamish, The Living History Museum of the North, as part of the Remaking Beamish 1950s’ town.

For more detailed information on all exhibitions and events taking place across the region click here >> 

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