Celebrating Norman Cornish, the artist famous for capturing the spirit of the North East5 min read

A year-long celebration has been launched in County Durham to mark the centenary of the birth of Norman Cornish MBE, one of the most famous artists to emerge from the North East of England in the 20th Century and one of the most celebrated British artists of his time.

Born into the mining town of Spennymoor, County Durham, Norman Cornish was a magnificent chronicler of one of the most important passages in English history. He recorded the social environment and industrial landscape in which he lived and worked; he was deeply attracted to humanity – to the wonderful shapes people made in their varied attitudes.

The paintings and drawings of Cornish tell the story of these hard-lived lives in a mining community which endured despite prejudice and adversity. He has not only preserved a life lived by millions of people in this country and others around the world, but he has also given it significance and permanence that only a real artist can achieve.

As Cornish famously said: “The local collieries have gone, together with the pit-road. Many of the old streets, chapels and pubs, are no more. Many of the ordinary but fascinating people who frequented these places are gone. However, in my memory, and I hope in my drawings, they live on. I simply close my eyes and they all spring to life.”

Cornish died in 2014, but 2019 marks the centenary of his birth and his family has worked in partnership with curators, academics, artists, biographers, galleries and the community to draw together a celebration of his life and work. This year will offer those familiar with his work, and with an already deep affection for it, new perspectives and the opportunity to see many previously unseen pieces, while also introducing his work to new audiences.

In Norman Cornish’s hometown, a new exhibition at the Bob Abley Art Gallery in Spennymoor tells the fascinating story of his mural depicting the Durham Miners’ Gala, painted by the artist in 1963.

The Story of the Durham Miners’ Gala Mural features a range of preparatory paintings, drawings, sketches and correspondence plotting the artist’s sometimes challenging journey from the commission of the nine-metre mural by Durham County Council to its installation at Durham’s County Hall, Aykley Heads where it remains. This exhibition contains many items which are previously unseen by the public, as well as works for sale, and runs throughout the centenary year from 6 April 2019 to the end of February 2020.

In Bishop Auckland, the Mining Art Gallery, part of The Auckland Project brings a different perspective to the celebrations with a special exhibition demonstrating Norman Cornish’s deeply ingrained identity within the community, felt still by those whose history it mirrors.

Norman Cornish – A Slice of Life is co-curated by residents of Norman’s hometown of Spennymoor, alongside his children John and Ann, all guided by the gallery’s curator Angela Thomas of The Auckland Project.

Community Groups including the Spennymoor Settlement Sketching Club and Rosa Street School and Tudhoe & Spennymoor Local History Society have selected work by Norman from various themes, including some rarely seen mining and street scenes. Their selections offer a warm and refreshing perspective on one of the most enduringly popular artists, as well as a fresh insight into how his work resonates with the community that lives on today.

This temporary exhibition sits alongside the Mining Art Gallery’s permanent collection featuring further work by Norman Cornish, as well as other prominent artists such as Tom McGuinness, Tom Lamb and Bob Olley.

Norman Cornish – A Slice of Life opens at the Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland Market Place on 6 April and runs until 13 October 2019.

Returning to Spennymoor, where Cornish was born and lived his whole life, the Spennymoor Town Council is opening the superbly refurbished John Kitson Archway within the Spennymoor Town Hall where a rich and diverse selection of the artist’s work is uniquely displayed on backlit glass panels, forming a stunning celebration of his work.

For those visiting the artist’s home town of Spennymoor, a visit would not be complete without taking in The Norman Cornish Trail which sets his work in their actual locations – taking people back to a time when coal was once the life-blood of industry and an important part of community life.

Visitors can walk in Cornish’s footsteps guided by a free trail guide or app offering insights into the 10 key locations which were the source of his inspiration.

Norman’s son John Cornish said: “As a family, we are delighted that my father’s legacy is being recognised with such an exciting programme of exhibitions at galleries across Durham County and beyond. Enduring projects such as ‘The Norman Cornish Trail’ in his home town of Spennymoor, and the unique display of his artwork on glass in the refurbished archway there, will ensure his legacy lives on.

“We are very proud of the esteem in which my father’s work is held by the public and we hope the planned exhibitions and events will serve to reinforce the region’s pride in its cultural heritage.”

More information on the artist and the Norman Cornish Centenary events can be found at www.normancornish.com.