Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 13 Aug 2019

The Lost World of Norman Cornish edited by Mara-Helen Wood

When I’m sitting pondering nothing much at all – on rail journey or maybe a long plane flight - and I’m not in the mood to read, I sometimes try and think of paintings I’d like to own and where in the house I’d put them. For me at least, there’s a real difference between paintings I love and admire and those I’d want for my own walls -  it’s hard to imagine, for example, Picasso’s Guernica being displayed to its best advantage on the wall of a Victorian semi in Worcestershire. But there are definitely some that just seem custom made for my house and, even though they might now be unobtainable, could just conceivably have been mine if only…..Let’s face it, there is no universe in which I would have ever owned a late period Goya but that’s not necessarily the case with one of my 20th century favourites, Norman Cornish.

Cornish ( 1919 – 2014) was the product of what is now known as the "Pitman's Academy" art school at the Spennymoor Settlement in County Durham and was its last surviving member when he died at the age of 94. Cornish entered the mining profession on leaving school at the age of 14 and continue to work underground until he finally gave it up to work on his art full time in 1966. His working life, his community and his family are the subjects of his drawings and paintings and, unlike Lowry who was essentially an observer of working class life, Cornish’s work comes from inside the working class experience.

I think that one of Cornish’s strengths lies in the fact that he didn’t see himself as – and isn’t – a polemical or didactic artist. There’s no explicit attempt to mount any sort of political protest here; the paintings do speak about the often hard and impoverished lives of the working class but they do so implicitly, through their veracity rather than explicitly or ideologically. That’s not to say that Cornish was apolitical: he shared with his friends and colleagues an understanding of the political dynamics of the northern coalfields and he was born into a community that breathed the oxygen of radical politics.

This collection of his work comes courtesy of the Northumbria University Gallery in Newcastle and benefits from a brief forward by Mara- Helen Wood, Director and Keeper Collections and a brief but excellent essay by William Varley that puts Cornish in his context. I especially liked the fact that this large format, generous publication doesn’t get too bogged down with expert opinion because other than Varley’s essay the focus is resolutely on the sumptuous reproductions of the artwork.

So what are the contenders to find their way onto my wall? Well, I love some of the more intimate family portraits that capture a domestic moments perfectly - a child enveloped by his reading or a full-face, frank portrait of his mother looking magisterial. The life in the coal mine and on the surface is brilliantly distilled and the camaraderie of the men as the trudge to and from work is tangible. But the ones I’d opt for are those that depict the community at leisure and specifically in the pub at the end of a working day. The pictures glow with warmth, literal and emotional, and the golden pints of beer shine in the hands of the knobbly drinkers.

Sadly, even though there are original works by Cornish still out there on the art market, they’ve now reached prices that are beyond me unless I get a mysterious legacy from a lost millionaire family member. This book is the next best alternative because it’s been so beautifully curated that the experience is as good as it’s going to get outside of the originals. You’ll get a copy of this book for under £20 and that’s an absolute bargain.


Terry Potter

August 2019

(Click on any image below to view them in a slide show format)