Sunday, 3 August 2014

Norman Cornish RIP

Last 'Pitman painter' Norman Cornish dies aged 94

Saturday 2 August 2014

The last of the "Pitman painters", known for his pictures of everyday life, has died at the age of 94.

Norman Cornish, of Spennymoor, County Durham, was the last surviving artist of the Pitman's Academy at The Spennymoor Settlement.

The settlement was set up in 1930, giving mining families access to the arts and Mr Cornish was one of its most famous students.

His son-in-law Mike Thornton said he died on Friday.

The settlement became known as the Pitman's Academy because its clubs nurtured the talents of people such as writer Sid Chaplin and artist Tom McGuinness.

Cornish spent 33 years working in mines before forging a career as an artist at 47.

In an interview with the BBC in 2011, he said painting was like an "itch that you have to scratch" and that he still painted every day.

His work included vivid nostalgic pictures of ordinary life including women in headscarves, men in flat caps, fish and chip vans and horse-drawn carts.

Other scenes included men playing dominoes in the pub and children skipping in the street. Each painting sold for thousands.

A statement on his website said: "It is with great sadness that we announce the death of celebrated artist Norman Cornish who passed away peacefully on the evening of the 1st of August, aged 94.

"A book of condolence will be available at Northumbria University Gallery from 5 August."

The eldest of nine children, whose father was out of work, Cornish said he had no option but to start working in a mine at the age of 14.

He soon joined the Spennymoor Settlement, a cultural venture that ran art classes and had a library where he could learn about Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec and Renoir.

The story of North East miners-turned-artists was turned into a play The Pitmen Painters, by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall.

The play focuses on a group of miners in Ashington, Northumberland, who became respected painters after seeking art tuition in the 1930s.

After opening in Newcastle in 2007, The Pitmen Painters has had successful runs at the National Theatre in London and on Broadway.

Ray Spencer, chief executive of the Customs House Trust in South Shields, paid tribute on Twitter and said the world Cornish painted" no longer existed."
From the archive, 24 May 1960: The narrow world of Norman Cornish
An accident of birth and environment produced a pitman, but what possesses him has made the painter

Sid Chaplin
The Guardian
Saturday 24 May 2014

In this narrow world are one town, one pit, and many people: all in a strip of land roughly a mile wide and three miles long, a land with a dark as well as a light side. The world is narrow: what matters is that one man by means of an art which is also an obsession has enlarged and endowed it with such meaning that strangers can share in it. This is very important. An accident of birth and environment produced a pitman, but what possesses him has made the painter. The paintings are significant not because he happens to be a pitman, but because he is an original and unusual human being.

Artists are wanderers, exiles, rootless men. Norman Cornish is immobile, static, except for the daily journey between home and work, from daylight to darkness and back again. A short time of exile, a return, but rooted all the time. The stony face reveals little erosion: only the cheekbones project to expose the youth of 40. 0r at times the sunken eyes hint at the polarity of his life.

His narrow world has two poles, two extremes. On the daylight side are pigeon crees and allotments, pit rows and pubs, fish and chip vans and market stalls, men carrying banners he himself designed. Time is defeated: the demolished houses, the dying women, are there in paint. The derelict is whole again. The living are caught before they go: the pigeon fanciers, corner-enders, oft-shift miners squatting on their hunkers and soaking in the sunshine and the good crack. In a moment the bus will come and the buzzer blow for the backshift.
Norman Cornish - Durham Gala
The other world starts at the tunnel under the railway at the top of the street in which he lives. This is the way to work, past the slagheap and the claypits, if they are still there, and on to the black road to Dean and Chapter Colliery, wide enough for three men to walk abreast, flanked by the limestone ridge and fox coverts to the right, to the left by the mineral line with the dark mass of the pit in front. He is at odds with this world, but in a curiously ambivalent manner; a mixture of love and revulsion, a kind of awe, the conflicting elements steadied by compassion. There is menace in the tilt of the telegraph poles and the fences. The road is wracked with conflict, the darkness crowds in, the environment strikes back at the hunched, dog-tired walking men.

This is two o'clock in the morning, but with dawn the conflict comes out into the open. The pitheap draws like a magnetic mountain, the fields stir with unease, and the swallows dipping on the wires are innocent and miraculously insulated intruders.

Here's a link to the full version of the Sid Chaplin article:

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