Published  21/01/2020

John Cornish – interview: ‘It would be unfair just to look back on my father’s career as that of a good pictorial social historian – his artwork has aesthetic quality; it is real and immersive’

John Cornish – interview: ‘It would be unfair just to look back on my father’s career as that of a good pictorial social historian – his artwork has aesthetic quality; it is real and immersive’

The son of the artist Norman Cornish, whose work is synonymous with mining life in the County Durham town of Spennymoor, looks back at his father’s life and artistic legacy

Norman Cornish in front of Pit Road picture. Date unknown.


Norman Cornish (1919-2014) was born into a mining family in Spennymoor, County Durham, as the eldest of seven children. Aged 14, he had to leave school and go and work in the mines. He was, however, also a keen artist, and, through sheer determination and drive, simultaneously forged a career drawing and painting. After 33 years in the pits, he retired due to chronic back problems, and was finally able to dedicate himself full time to his art. His sketches of workers in the pub, playing darts or dominoes, of locals queuing at the fish and chip van, and of his wife, father and children, paint the portrait of a place and time and are as synonymous with the northeast of England, as LS Lowry’s are with the northwest. Nevertheless, despite numerous honorary doctorates and an MBE for his contribution to art, his renown seems more locally bounded. This is something that his family hope to change, and, with 2019 being the anniversary of his birth, they helped put on an array of exhibitions and establish a permanent trail in Spennymoor, taking visitors to key sites where Cornish worked.

Norman Cornish. The Crowded Bar, undated. Oil on canvas, 121 x 196 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

Studio International spoke to the artist’s son, John Cornish, about the celebrations – some of which are still ongoing, his father’s legacy, and his own memories of family life.

Anna McNay: 2019 was the centenary of the birth of your father, Norman Cornish. It saw the opening of numerous exhibitions of his work across the northeast of England, including a first major retrospective at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, on until 23 February. As the anniversary was now last year, several of these exhibitions have already ended, but some are permanent, and The Story of the Durham Miners’ Gala Mural at the Bob Abley Gallery, in Spennymoor Town Hall, and an exhibition of his sketchbooks at Palace Green Library, Durham University, are both also on until the end of February.

John Cornish: Yes, that’s right. All the exhibitions have been very popular and had a strong footfall. People have come from far and wide to see them.

AMc: Is your father generally still well known, particularly in the region where you live?

JC: My understanding is that his work is instantly recognisable – not just by people who follow art either. I think he’s extremely well known in this part of the world in particular, because his work is synonymous with the culture from a generation or two ago. And lots of people still reflect back on those times with great nostalgia. More widely, he has work in Canada and Australia. As a family, we have also set up a website – – and we get quite a lot of visitors from North America and around the world. Nevertheless, we feel my father deserves to be known more widely still. He had a long and illustrious 70-year career, and we feel his artwork is up there with the greats. I’m not highly knowledgeable about art, but I see the way people reflect on my father’s art. That was part of the thinking behind the centenary celebrations. We are hoping to open his work up more widely – to new audiences and a younger generation.

AMc: How do you think your father would have felt about the celebrations?

JC: Well, he wasn’t one to court publicity. He wasn’t beating his chest saying ‘Look at me!’ All he wanted, I think, was for his work to stand the test of time. Towards the end of his life, he began to ask: ‘Do you think my work will be up there, so people will recognise it, in years to come?’ He wasn’t only about Norman Cornish the person, but he wanted his work to be seen and recognised, certainly.

Norman Cornish. Man with Pint, undated. Oil on board, 14 x 21 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

AMc: More for what it was showing than for who it was by?

JC: I don’t know that’s quite what I mean. His work is revered because it’s great social history. It’s a window into a world of flat caps, pubs, whippets, lads going to work, street scenes, horses and carts, all of those sort of things. But his artwork is wonderful, and I think it would be unfair for people just to look back on my father’s career as that of a good pictorial social historian. Yes, his work was particularly well known because he was capturing the flavour of the mines, but if he had been born a fisherman, he would have been painting a fishing community, and if he had been born a farmer, he would have been painting men working in fields. He had to paint and draw, that’s what he had to do. It was an itch he had to scratch. He didn’t set out to be a social historian. He was attracted to humanity and he was simply painting the world around him.

AMC: He was working in the mines from the age of 14. Presumably that was a full-time job in itself?

JC: Yes. To put it into context, he was the eldest of seven children. His father was a miner and several generations before him were miners too, but his father had been temporarily put out of work. He had friends in school who went on to become doctors and have professional careers, but they were from families that could afford to keep their children in school. My father had to leave school at 14 to support the family, that was that. 

Norman Cornish. Self Portrait, undated. Charcoal and chalk on paper, 43 x 30 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

So his circumstances were quite difficult, although not unusual. There were often families living in two-up, two-down colliery houses with outside toilets and no bathrooms – that was the norm. But he didn’t have the chance to go on to further education. And yes, it is remarkable to think that he was able to forge an artistic drive into a career, and a career into a profession, as a person who was simultaneously working a hard, physical job, five days a week. It was quite a remarkable feat to achieve that. 

The vast majority of people of my father’s generation, who went to work, would have spent their leisure time going to the allotment, going to the pub, racing and keeping pigeons. My father was always walking around the town with sketchbook and pen at the ready, sketching things.

Norman Cornish. Excerpt from Sketchbook, undated. Ink on paper, 21 x 29 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

AMc: It seems his rise to fame as an artist was fairly rapid – even while still working in the pits?

JC: It wasn’t really rapid at all. He was 19 or 20 when he was seen to be producing good work in the Spennymoor Settlement sketching club – which we’ll come back to talk about in a second – and he managed to have a one-man exhibition when he was in his 20s and went to London to help hang an exhibition of mining art. Eventually he started to sell a bit of work, but it was a slow burner. He eventually got to the point where, in the 60s, he became associated with the Stone Gallery in Newcastle, and he was hanging works alongside the likes of LS Lowry and Sheila Fell. So it wasn’t sudden, but he did become famous.

AMc: He continued working as a miner right through the Second World War and, in fact, for a remarkable 33 years, until he requested redundancy at the age of 47, owing to chronic back problems.

JC: Yes, eventually he left the mines and had to take the risk of not having a regular wage coming in and not being beholden to the pit to provide him with a roof over his head. He was working with the Stone Gallery at that time, but he wasn’t selling work on a weekly basis, so it was a risky thing for him to do. The cornerstone, or turning point, if you want to call it that, was when he was commissioned by Durham County Council to paint the Durham Miners’ Gala mural. There was a big, new County Hall, the Shire Hall, being built here in Durham, and they wanted a large mural to represent the region. My father was chosen – as a working miner, a working man – to produce something synonymous with the region. It was quite a task having to paint something 30 feet wide when living in a tiny little colliery house so he ended up painting it in an old, disused church hall. It was a very harsh winter that year and the oil paints were hardly moving because it was so cold. He had to keep adding linseed oil to the paint just to get it to flow. He was given unpaid leave from his job at Mainsforth Colliery to paint the mural.

Norman Cornish. Pit Road with Telegraph Poles and Lights, undated. Pastel on paper, 55 x 75 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

AMc: One of the exhibitions still on tells the story of the mural.

JC: Yes, the exhibition currently in Spennymoor Town Hall tells the story in more detail, about how he managed to complete the task under all sorts of challenging circumstances. It includes much of the preparatory work, photographs of all sort things to do with the development of the mural, maquettes (which themselves are three metres wide), and so on. It tells the backstory. The County Hall, where the mural itself still hangs, is due for demolition though, so we are currently, as a family, talking to Durham County Council about relocating it. To get a piece that big off the wall and moved to a new venue won’t be easy. The plan is that it will eventually reside back in Bishop Auckland, right next to the new Mining Art Gallery.

AMc: Yes, this opened last year as part of the Auckland Project, if I’m right?

JC: Yes, and it’s been really well received. Robert McManners and Gillian Wales, who are experts in mining art with a real passion for it, have built up an impressive collection over the years, called the Gemini Collection. Obviously it includes quite a few of my father’s works. There was an exhibition of his work there as part of the centenary celebrations, but that’s closed now. But he’s part of the permanent collection. It’s a lovely exhibition space and they change the work on show every six months.

AMc: What do you remember of your father as a child growing up? Did he have much time for his family alongside working in the pits and being an artist?

JC: No, we didn’t spend a great deal of leisure time together. In fact, really and truly, there wasn’t a lot of leisure time to be had. If he wasn’t working, my father would be sketching and painting. He was driven. He had a destiny and that was it. My grandfather lived down the road and I spent a lot of time with him. My father was a loving family man, though, who looked after his kids very well. He made sure we had everything we needed. There were atlases in the house, and other books that would help us develop. He would take us to see the odd film, which he knew would make us think – those kinds of things. My sister and I were well looked after and my father encouraged us to do well. We both went on to become teachers.

Norman Cornish. John in Tin Bath, undated. Ink and watercolour on paper, 34 x 24 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

I probably had more time to spend with my father when I was older, when he wasn’t working in the mines, and he was working as an artist in the house. He was more relaxed then. I would chat with him and he would be quite philosophical. He was an intellectual really. He had lots of interesting thoughts. He would talk at length about all sorts of things, be it art, religion, music, philosophy, or whatever. We had a stronger relationship when I was older. When I was a kid, I remember he would be out and about a lot of the time and, when he was in the house, he’d often see a picture in his head. When he saw mother doing something like knitting, he’d ask her to hold a pose and sketch that. Or if I was lying down reading a comic, I would be sketched. Or I’d be in the little tin bath, and that would be recorded. So I do remember my father as someone who was there. He was just always working with a sketchbook, always looking for things that interested him. 

AMc: Did he always sketch in situ, or did he ever come home later and sketch something from memory?

JC: Most of his work was done through very rapid sketching. He had an amazing capacity to get something down on a piece of paper very quickly, because people in the pub didn’t pose, they moved about and got on with their own thing. He learned the skill of getting a snapshot down really quickly. If he was lucky, they might be standing at the bar or something, talking, and he would have a chance to get every little fold of the trouser leg correct, but generally speaking he worked fast.

After he died, we found 269 sketchbooks. They’re packed with doodles and sketches, noted-down philosophies, and some partly completed work. You might find the hind legs of a greyhound on one page, which he clearly wasn’t happy with, and so he went over the page and drew them again and again. But the books are also full of beautiful caricatures and street scenes.

Norman Cornish. Man at Bar with Dog, undated. Mixed media, 62 x 42 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

My mother stitched a large ‘poacher’s pocket’ on to the inside of his jacket, so he would have a Flomaster pen, which was like a really early forerunner of a felt tip, and a large sketchbook when he was out and about. He might be in the pub – and obviously, back in the day, lots of working men would be in the pubs in the evening, having a smoke or a drink, with a dog, playing darts or dominoes, leaning towards each other talking – and he would be there with his sketchbook. He was a workmate, and it wasn’t like he was there sticking a camera in anybody’s face, so he’d just sit and sketch and nobody bothered. 

He was very good at collecting unguarded moments as opposed to posed shots: a man up a ladder, a man with a bicycle, anything. That was his workspace, really, the sketchbook. Even though some of the sketches are worthy of being seen as separate entities, or works in their own right, he would then come home and use them as his reference points from which to develop a pastel or a painting.

AMc: You say he didn’t consider those sketches to be finished works, so would they never have been exhibited?

JC: Over the years, lots of sketches have been sold as separate pieces of work. Sometimes they were torn out of sketchbooks, and sometimes, they were just sketches on pieces of paper. He used to work on all sorts. He’d sketch on The Radio Times, on newspapers, on the back of the cardboard that came out of packets that were holding a shirt stiff.

Norman Cornish. Old Man on 'Petit Pont' (Paris), 1966. Ink on paper, 35 x 25 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

He wanted the sketches to have a life of their own. He didn’t want them to be broken up. But he wanted them to have a life of their own and to be seen by people and to be of interest to people. So that’s effectively what they’re doing. They are being archived and presented. At the moment, they are in the Palace Green Library, near Durham Cathedral, and there are 50-plus of those sketchbooks in glass cabinets being exhibited. Lots of people love the sketches as much as they like the finished works.

AMc: You say there being archived. Who is doing all of this work?

JC: We, as a family, have a long-standing relationship with Northumbria University, who used to exhibit my father’s work, and, since he passed away in 2014, they hold the archive, which includes correspondence, all the catalogues, newspaper cuttings, audio tapes, and lots of my father’s unfinished works. They have also had quite a lot of work by my father bequeathed to them and work that has been loaned to them permanently or on long-term loan from different collectors. There is a PhD student currently looking at how my father’s technique developed over the years, and Professor Jean Brown and her department are looking to develop an instrumental analysis. It’s like Fake or Fortune, really, where these machines can look in depth at all sorts of pigmentations.

The sketchbooks are still owned by the family, but they will probably reside with Northumbria University as part of the archive so that people can come to look at them in years to come.

AMc: The Spennymoor Settlement was established in 1930 by the Pilgrim Trust to offer hope to an impoverished community. What do you remember about growing up there?

JC: The Settlement itself was just a phrase used for one small establishment. It’s probably the terminology which is confusing – the word ‘settlement’ makes it sound like it was a small village where people lived. Spennymoor was designated as the area which was in great social need, and the Settlement was set up based on similar projects in the south, such as Toynbee Hall. It was basically just a home or a shop that had been taken out of circulation, where two or three rooms were made available and offered all sorts of crafts for the locals: needlework, cobbling, and creative writing. And one of the groups was a sketching club.

AMC: Which your father joined.

JC: As a 14-year-old, he’d just started working down the mines, when he walked past the window of the Settlement and saw a poster for an exhibition of art by the Spennymoor Settlement sketching club. He decided he fancied some of that, since he’d always liked drawing. He knocked and tried to join but they wouldn’t have him because they said he was too young. ‘Come back in a year,’ they said. I think they just thought they’d fobbed him off. But he knocked again a year later, at 15, and he was so enthusiastic that they let him in. And, from that point really, it was an awakening for him, because there were people there who had artistic training and skills, who could point him in the right direction. He was told to focus on painting the world around him, not bowls of fruit or anything like that. It’s also interesting what comes full circle because, to the best of my knowledge, there were art books and suchlike at the club too, and I think that The Studio magazine was also there. My father, coming from a home where there was just one book in the house, a novel that had nothing to do with art, took a lot of interest in this. It was an awakening for him to see how other artists worked. The whole world of art opened up for him. It was certainly developmental for him.

Norman Cornish. Bishops Close Street, Spennymoor, undated. Ink and watercolour on paper, 22 x 28 cm. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

AMc: I’ve got a quote here from your father where he says: ‘I paint human beings. I paint their hopes and their attitudes and the feelings I have when I look at them. The images come from the people. They create them. I am just the medium.’ Was he more focused on capturing the psychological or physical likeness of his subjects?

JC: The things he liked the most were people and shapes. He liked the shapes people would make. He did accurately capture people’s characters very well. It would never just be a sketch of some old bloke. He sketched many people, local characters, who were instantly recognisable. Lots of people still look at his sketches today and say: ‘That’s my Uncle Jim’. They can see straight away who it is. In some instances, he would put down the name of the person on the corner of the page: ‘Rooky Wilson in the Lord Raglan pub’, for instance. Then we know who it was and where it was drawn. But even without that, I know several people in the sketches. I know their names. I know what they did. He would often go back and draw his favourite characters many times, be it the paper seller on the corner of the street, or one of his friends who used to sit in the pub and sing a couple of songs. 

He liked certain themes. He’d have a couple of people sitting together, leaning together, heads almost touching in conversation, and he’d call it a bridge between minds: almost a physical bridge, as you’re looking at it structurally, but also a bridge because the two people are in very close union about a specific topic. Very often you could see loneliness, or desperation, or tiredness in his work. My father was really good at painting people’s feelings.

AMc: Another thing that has been done as part of the centenary celebrations is the creation of a Norman Cornish trail, taking visitors to key sites around Spennymoor, as depicted in his works. Will this remain in place?

JC: Yes. Spennymoor is a typical mining town, although obviously there are no mines, or evidence of any mines, today. It’s not a big place, but the trail takes you around the sites where my father did most of his work. He spent his whole life in Spennymoor. Some would say he focused on a ‘narrow world’ but he once said: ‘It has everything an artist needs in order to depict humanity’. If you were to draw a box, maybe a mile and a half by a mile and a half, across Spennymoor, and look at the work he produced, and we’re talking about hundreds of sketches and many larger works, the vast majority, probably 90%, would have been made within that box. He would go to Newcastle and do some paintings occasionally, and he even went on a Tyne Tees television trip to Paris once, but, generally speaking, the majority of his work was made in that small box of Spennymoor.  

The trail takes you around 10 locations. It’s about a 40-minute walk and there are beautifully presented installations along the way, with images of my father’s pictures. You can stand and look at his picture and then look beyond to the actual place itself. You can see exactly where the artist stood.

The family worked really hard with the design team and the town council on putting the trail together, and it’s designed for longevity. There’s also a trail booklet, which guides you around, and an app, through which you can listen to a soundtrack of people talking about those times. People were interviewed who used to live in the houses when they were kids. There is all sorts of supplementary material based on the trail. And, indeed, in the Town Hall, where the exhibition for the Miners’ Gala is currently on show, which is also the start of the trail, there’s a corridor which has been refurbished and which has lots of my father’s best-known works superimposed in the glass of the archway, backlit. People don’t just walk past these; they walk in and stand and look for quite a long time before they leave again.

AMc: With regards to the trail, are there any of the sites in particular that hold a certain resonance for you?

JC: I would say, probably, Berriman’s chip van. As a child, we used to visit that a lot. The restored chip van is currently in Beamish Museum. But, as a child in the 60s, and probably for many other people in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was an iconic part of our past. It was a place where people would go and stand in a queue to buy chips and fishcake. The smell would permeate the whole area and people would come from all over. There were three Berriman brothers. Two would be working in the chip van: one would fry, one would serve, and the third would be in the pub. They used to do a rotation. It brings back lots of memories for loads of people.

Norman Cornish. Berriman's Chip Van, undated. Oil on board. © Courtesy of Norman Cornish Estate.

The other one I would pick out is Bishop’s Close Street, where I was born and spent my formative years as a child playing. I look back with great fondness to playing on the railway embankment, and the slag heaps from the iron foundries, and the coal tips. They were adventure playgrounds. 

AMc: You were often being sketched, no doubt, at the same time? 

JC: No doubt, yes. My sister and I were sketched a lot, and my mother and my grandfather. In fact, we are quite lucky because we don’t have many photographs, but we have lots of lovely sketches of family life back at Bishop’s Close Street. We even found one just yesterday. My brother-in-law gives talks about my dad and people sometimes come up afterwards to tell us about a picture they own. We received one yesterday, which is a sketch of my grandfather on a big sofa chair. I’m sitting on another chair in front of him, leaning back against his belly, between his legs, watching the TV. I remember, as a kid, my favourite place was sitting in front of my grandfather and leaning back. As his belly moved up and down, my head would bob up and down too.

AMc: Finally, your father received many honorary doctorates and an MBE for his contribution to art. Do you think he was aware of how significant he was in the art world, and beyond the art world?

JC: He got an MBE, an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from Northumbria, an Honorary Doctorate of Art from Sunderland University, and, earlier on, he got an Honorary Master of Arts from Newcastle University. Not bad for a man who didn’t even get a full education! I think he knew his work would stand the test of time, although he wanted a bit of reassurance on that. He made lots of television appearances and things like that. And people came to visit him from far and wide – actors, actresses, and politicians. So I think he knew he had made an impact. But it’s a different world now. He didn’t like computers or telephones. He certainly didn’t like cars. He wouldn’t draw cars very often because he thought they were like aphids on a rosebush, just spoiling everything. He didn’t like telephones because, if they rang, they would disturb him when he was concentrating. He knew he was established well before he died, but, with the centenary, we are pushing to try and broaden the remit of people who recognise and appreciate his work, beyond those in the northeast. People ask why he is not as well known as Lowry. Lowry’s work in the northwest was very typical of Manchester, the cotton mills, and all of that. And my father’s work is every bit as synonymous with our region as Lowry’s was with his.

Norman Cornish: The Definitive Collection is on show at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, until 23 February 2020. 
Norman Cornish: The Sketchbooks is at Palace Green Library, Durham University, until 23 February 2020.
• The Story of the Durham Miners’ Gala Mural is on show at the Bob Abley Art Gallery, Spennymoor Town Hall until the end of February 2020.
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