First look at striking Norman Cornish portraits as exhibition opens

A beautiful collection of portraits by one of the North East’s most celebrated artists, Norman Cornish, have been brought together for the first time in special centenary exhibition.

By Sophie Brownson
Sunday, 30 June, 2019, 16:45

Norman Cornish – The Portraits opened at the Gala Gallery in Durham’s Gala Theatre on Sunday, June 30, and will run until Sunday, September 1.

The stunning collection of works comes as part of a series of exhibitions and activities celebrating 100 years since the birth of the artist.

John Cornish at the Norman Cornish - The Portraits exhibition on show at The Gala Gallery in Durham City.

Famous for capturing the hard-lived but often bright lives of mining communities in the 20th Century, portraiture was an important part of Norman’s artistic practice.

The Gala Gallery exhibition features a mix of self-portraits, family portraits, and the portraits of the colourful characters Norman came across in his eight decades of work.

The exhibition is the first time that a selection of Norman Cornish’s portraits have been brought together to form a distinct collection.

Inspired by the ‘unguarded moments’ of the people around him, it is evident that from a young age that Norman not only had the skill and technicality required of formal and traditional portraiture but also saw the value in painting everyday people going about their normal lives.

John Cornish at the Norman Cornish - The Portraits exhibition on show at The Gala Gallery in Durham City.

Widely recognised as one of the most talented and distinguished artists of the 20th Century, his story has humble beginnings.

Born in Spennymoor in November 1919, at the age of 14, he was obliged to start life as a miner at a local colliery – a career spanning more than three decades.

Around that time, his passion for art found fulfilment and a means to progress when he joined the Sketching Club at the inspirational Spennymoor Settlement.

The Settlement, which opened in 1931 with funds from the Pilgrim Trust, became known as the Pitman’s Academy and brought a glimmer of hope during the depression years to an impoverished community, broadening horizons and cultivating creativity.

A selection of portraits hanging in the Norman Cornish - The Portraits exhibition on show at The Gala Gallery in Durham.

His son John Cornish, 62, from Chester-le-Street, has helped to pull the exhibition together.

He said: “I am emotional about the exhibition.

“As a family we have worked really hard since his passing to promote his legacy.

“I think his work will stand the test of time because of its quality.

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“There are so many works out there that it was important to pull them together from different sources.

“People don’t know how skilled he was at formal portraits, they know him for capturing unguarded moments – people are used to seeing that.

“This is the first time the portraits have been pulled together as a body of work.”

Growing up, John remembers how his dad would always carry a sketch book and a Flo-Master pen so that he could capture the life he saw around him.

He said: “It was just normal to me as a child that dad was a painter, how he would go upstairs and potter about.

”I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate what was going on upstairs – where some of his finest art work was being produced – until I was a lot older.”

Norman’s work now serves as a social and historical record of bygone times.

John, a retired PE teacher, continued: “His main interest was people and the shape they made.

“He was a miner for 33 years and he was very proud to be a part of that community.

“Even though all of the mines are gone, people of a certain age still remember and reflect on those times with happy hearts and lovely memories.

“My father’s work really brings that home to people.”

John and his wife now visit schools and talk to the children about history and art to help them understand their heritage.

On the exhibition, John added: “I think my dad would be quietly proud to see the range of work pulled together.

“It’s very impressive.”

As part of the centenary celebration, work by Norman Cornish will also be exhibited at The Bob Abley Gallery in Spennymoor Town Hall; the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland; Durham University’s Palace Green Library; The Greenfield Gallery, Newton Aycliffe and The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

The Norman Cornish Centenary Exhibition programme is supported by Arts Council England National Lottery Fund.