The Narrow World of Norman Cornish at Northumbria University Gallery

By Nick Owen | 19 August 2011
a painting of people on a street queueing for fish and chips from a green van
Norman Cornish, Mobile Fish Shop. Oil on board© Northumbria University, on behalf of Norman Cornish
Exhibition: The Narrow World of Norman Cornish, University Gallery, Northumbria University, until October 7 2011

Despite the suggestion in this exhibition’s title, the world of Norman Cornish is far from narrow.

The phrase is borrowed from Sid Chaplin, Cornish’s friend and author, who, with a hint of irony, saw his paintings as confined to the “narrow world” of Cornish’s hometown.

His depictions of the mines, pubs and faces of Spennymore, however, are filled with a heightened sense of community.

Cornish’s world is one of chip vans serving headscarfed women, men in flat caps packed into pubs and horse-drawn carts lining cobbled streets.

a painting of a man in sweater, shirt and spectacles
Norman Cornish, Self Portrait with Spectacles. Oil on board© Northumbria University, on behalf of Norman Cornish
His paintings are vivid, honest depictions of ordinary life, brimming with nostalgia for a half-forgotten and near-vanished world.

Born in 1919 as the eldest of nine children, by the age of 14 and with his father out of work, Cornish’s dreams of university were thwarted and his life as a pitman began.

However, in 1934, Cornish was accepted into a sketching club known as the Spennymore Settlement and began his dual life as a miner and artist.  

Until a back problem ended his mining career, Cornish depicted his "marras" in all aspects of life, whether down in the confines of the mine or bathed in the amber glow of a pub.

The reverence for his workmates is palpable; though a secular man, his pithead gantries resemble another Golgotha.

a drawing of a woman in an apron leaning on her arm
Grandma. Flowmaster pen on paper© Northumbria University, on behalf of Norman Cornish
These metaphors are as easy to apply to the studies of his wife Sarah knitting, which Cornish allowed to have “an aura of sanctity”.

Unlike LS Lowry, his fellow painter of industrial scenes, Cornish seeks beauty in the life and shapes of the everyday.

“If you see a street and it’s not terribly interesting, you don’t draw it. But then something happens," he said in a recent interview.

“Some interesting people come in or a couple of dogs start fighting or some kids start playing with skipping ropes, and suddenly it enlivens the place and I want to draw it”.

With the demise of the coal industry and the culture dependant on it, a few pits have re-opened as heritage centres.

While they offer valuable insights into the world of mining the known experience that Cornish continues to offer in his 91st year provides a tangible link with a world that has all but disappeared.

  • Open 10am-5pm (except Sunday, 10am-4pm Friday and Saturday). Admission free.
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