In the year 1933, when Norman Cornish was fourteen, growing up in Spennymoor, two things of significance happened to him. He was a bright boy, had passed the exam for grammar school, but deep in the middle of the Depression his family needed another wage. So at fourteen he went to work at Dean and Chapter Colliery in nearby Ferryhill, a pit with such a poor safety record that it was known locally as ‘the Butcher’s Shop’. When he signed his indenture, the watching official murmured, ‘You’ve just signed your death warrant, son’. Happily, this prediction proved to be inaccurate.
Around the same time he joined a sketching club at the Spennymoor Settlement, the charitable institute bringing education and art to miners and their families. Norman had already won a prize of a halfpenny for drawing an old lady’s boot – he was four – but under expert guidance his talent flowered and he began painting the life around him: the pit, the streets of his town, the faces of its people, and he was still doing the same thing seventy-five years later. He never lived anywhere other than Spennymoor; he rarely painted anywhere else. It gave him all he needed; it was in the best sense ‘the narrow world’ of Norman Cornish.
At Dean and Chapter he met the originator of that phrase, another young man with a dream of becoming an artist, the novelist-to-be, my father Sid Chaplin. They became friends, as did Sarah Cornish and my mother Rene. Thus I grew up with Norman, not just because I saw a lot of him, but because I looked at his pictures my parents had bought or been given. Actually I lived with these paintings, day after day, year after year, passing them countless times, so their shapes imprinted themselves on my subconscious and their meaning seeped into my head and heart. I especially remember a sequence of pictures that marched up the staircase of our house like a procession of miners’ lodge banners at the Durham Gala. Each of these pictures told a story.
First was a quintessential Cornish image. A back lane, a windy Monday, rows of washing blowing on lines, children playing. You look at this picture with its economy and movement and instinctively know what’s going to happen next: a football will soon muddy a sheet and a woman in an apron will come running.
Then there was a Big Meeting picture, impressionistic, with tiny splashes of colour, and two images that Norman returned to time and again: a figure underground, wielding a pick in a thin seam, the pitted muscular torso twisted to gain maximum purchase; and a bar scene featuring the broad back of a drinker, stubby fingers curved around a glass and below, his whippet, waiting, eyes imploring. Finally, crowning the ascent, a strange picture that fascinated me: a pithead gantry in the background, stark and foreboding, in front hunched figures climbing iron steps towards it. As a boy this struck me as a vision of Calvary, but I never mentioned it to anyone – it seemed too fanciful a notion. When I first clapped my eyes on the work of Stanley Spencer, an epiphany sang in my head: if Christ could walk the lanes of Cookham, then surely he could ride the cage at Dean and Chapter too, and pit people could find redemption, of a kind.
Spennymoor was essentially a Victorian invention, springing up in the years after Tudhoe Ironworks was opened in 1853. Shafts were sunk round about to feed the furnaces with coal: Whitworth, Page Bank, Tudhoe, Westerton, Newfield, and eventually the pit where Norman Cornish was to spend the bulk of his mining life, the Dean and Chapter. Railway lines were laid, chapels built, the odd school, and long terraces to house miners and their families, drawn from the four corners of Britain by the prospect of work. They included the Cornish family, and it was here in the shadow of the town hall clock that Norman was born shortly after the end of the First World War. He spent his entire life there, and painted its life from his teens into his late 80’s, returning obsessively to the same images decades after they had passed from view.
Not so long ago, I visited Norman and Sarah and after a fine lunch, was given a tour of the artist’s studio, lined with books and LPs, paintings and drawings stacked against the walls, a work-in-progress on the easel, the faint smell of oil paint in the air. After Norman had given a vigorous rendition of the Peasants’ Thanksgiving Dance in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, he spoke of the changing physical and spiritual landscape around him. He told me my dad once said that Spennymoor was the ugliest place he knew. Norman thought this was unfair, but ‘if it was ugly, it had plenty of character’. Now, he thought, it was ugly no more, but had lost much of that character. Now it had roundabouts, supermarkets, pedestrian walkways, and was beginning to look like everywhere else. It was clear that the loss of the ever-changing shapes of the pit-heaps grieved him especially. ‘I sometime wonder whether someone’s trying to obliterate my life’. Pause. ‘But they can’t – cos it’s all up here’. And tapped his forehead vigorously with a long, bony forefinger. ‘All I have to do is shut my eyes, and I can see it all, down to every last detail’.
Norman was an iconoclast, and sometimes a cheerfully disputacious one, in another way. The easiest way to upset him was to suggest he was a ‘Pitman Painter’. He did not wish to belong to any ‘movement’, and despite the near proximity of other gifted painters drawn to record the same world, men like Tom McGuinness and Robert Heslop, he tended to keep himself to himself, artistically speaking. In the 1960s and 70s he was tempted beyond the precincts of his home town, to Newcastle for instance, and at the prompting of Tyne Tees Television, to the lanes of Montmartre, but apart from one striking portrait of a slab-faced Newcastle United fan wearing a black and white scarf, the results were largely uninspiring. Clearly his heart wasn’t in it: he couldn’t wait to get back home.
Norman’s constantly reworked portrait of Spennymoor life in its heyday established his reputation in the 50s and 60s, allowed him to leave the pit in 1966 – to his relief, as for such a tall man, coal-winning was a daily agony – and sustained it as an old man when his work reached new audiences (via exhibitions at the University of Northumbria Gallery and King’s Place, London, curated by Mara-Helen Wood), among them the children of pitmen, who began to understand mining life, not because they’d lived it, but because they absorbed its nuances from his art, and so connected with what made them what they are. His immense body of work constitutes a powerful, often tender record of the Durham coalfield, a lost world reflected in the set of a cap, an arthritic hand clutching dominoes, a dumpy old lady’s broken umbrella in the rain, the loneliness that hangs on the sloping shoulders of the pitmen trudging down Norman’s mythic pit road from Spennymoor to the Butcher’s Shop.
The irony of course is he was still painting this world long after the pits themselves had gone, wiped clean from the landscape. But it would be wrong to think everything of that old pit culture has gone. Not long after Norman’s death last summer, I returned to Spennymoor after some years, looking for something, I’m not sure what. I made a surprising discovery, that maybe the car has diminished the vigorous street life that was such a feature of Norman’s work -– and the cold of an early-closing day didn’t help – but it was still there, if you looked for it. An old man in stout shoes and tweed cap struggled with a recalcitrant dog. A lady in a russet brown headscarf humped two full shopping bags and leaned into the wind. A man carrying lengths of dowling under his arm greeted an acquaintance, his voice booming through the steamed-up window of the café where I sat: ‘Are you all right?’ A toddler ran to a man – his grandad? – who swept him up in the air and swung him around. In the gathering twilight, a lad in wraparound sunglasses swaggered past, one hand in pocket, the other carrying three large loaves of sliced white bread. Half an hour later, he came back, heading the other way, possibly uncertain of his destination. And behind me, underneath the prints of old pastoral scenes, two men discussed their ailments. ‘And I was that bad, I didn’t get me puff back for weeks.’ As they left, his friend called ‘Ta-ra, chick’ to the respectable middle-aged lady behind the counter. They donned their caps. And somehow it didn’t seem to matter that they were of the transatlantic baseball variety.
The longer I spent in the town, the more I glimpsed quintessential Cornish images. I took a walk where the railway lines once snaked southwards, the outline of Auckland Castle etched against a distant hill. Rooks hung in the air, a cat skulked in the willow scrub by the path, half a dozen piebald ponies grazed in a field. There were football pitches, with kids playing, fighting, laughing; and immaculate allotments fenced with discarded garage doors. In one, a row of fat cabbages waited to be lifted by an elderly man, who straightened suddenly, putting a hand to the small of his back. As he saw me, a total stranger, he waved and called out, ‘How do!’
And I wished Norman was there with his sketchbook. Of course that wasn’t to be, but I hope that sometime another gifted iconoclast might come along to paint the Spennymoor of the 21st century. She or he would certainly inherit the richest of traditions…
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 46, 2015