Entertainment & Arts

Norman Cornish: The last pitman painter

Mobile Fish Shop by Norman Cornish
Image caption Several of Cornish's paintings depict the fish and chip vans of Spennymoor

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

Now 91 and still painting every day, he speaks about his friendship with LS Lowry and why he is not a fan of the hit play The Pitmen Painters.

Like Lowry, Cornish is fascinated by the world around him, painting vivid views of ordinary life that combine unpretentious realism with nostalgia for a half-forgotten, fast-vanishing world.

His is a world where women wear headscarves and men wear flat caps, a world of fish and chip vans and horse-drawn carts, of men playing dominoes in the pub and children skipping in the street. There are no cars.

Image caption Norman Cornish says he has no plans to stop painting

But unlike Lowry, Cornish's subjects walk, talk and play together and are not haunting, alienated faces in the crowd.

"With Lowry, it's almost as if he were looking at real life through a window," says Cornish, who was born and still lives in Spennymoor, County Durham. "I was in the real life. I was outside amongst it all."

Cornish's friend and author Sid Chaplin once said his paintings depicted a "narrow world" - his family, the mines, the pubs, the faces of Spennymoor.

That phrase has been borrowed for the title of his latest exhibition, at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, which charts his work from early sketches of his parents to his newest work, dated 2011.

The eldest of nine children, whose father was out of work, Cornish 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 only tuition I got was from the settlement," Cornish says. "I didn't have a lot of time, but I had to paint... it's an itch that you have to scratch."

He slowly started to exhibit but did not acquire a set of oil paints until a wealthy lady, who lived in "a big hall", admired one of his watercolours and asked why it was not painted in oils. Told he could not afford them, she wrote out a cheque.

Cornish worked in four mines during those 33 years and his fellow workers, he says, were mildly amused by his artistic endeavours.

"They would maybe make a joke up about things or pull my leg from time to time, but they never really bothered me a lot."

Image caption Cornish depicted the collieries in which he worked before becoming a full-time artist at the age of 47

A growing artistic reputation and worsening back problems led him to become a full-time artist at the age of 47.

While most people might not give a road or a pub a second glance, Cornish seeks beauty in the life and shapes of everyday locations.

"If you see a street and it's not terribly interesting, you don't draw it," he says.

"But then something happens. Some interesting people come in or a couple of dogs start fighting or some kids start playing with skipping ropes, and suddenly it enlivens the place and I want to draw it."

Many of his paintings show men leaning into each other to talk in the pub, or standing with legs bent at the bar.

"In the past I was so used to going in the pub drawing that they didn't take the slightest bit of notice of me," he says.

"I was painting real people. They couldn't care less about me. I was in a wonderland there."

Cornish became friends with Lowry after meeting him at a gallery in Newcastle and recalls him as being "a bit funny, a bit peculiar".

"I remember we talked about what happened to an artist when he died. His work - was it forgotten or was it going to be cherished?" Cornish says.

Image caption The exhibition includes self-portraits and sketches of Cornish's family

He told a sceptical Lowry that his works would be cherished "for obvious reasons", he remembers.

"I've lived long enough and he's been dead long enough for me to see the real result of what we were discussing, the fact that he was important.

"I don't know about my own [work], but that's another matter."

The story of north-east miners-turned-artists has recently been celebrated in The Pitmen Painters, a play by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, which is preparing to open in the West End.

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.

Cornish feels an affinity with the Ashington men - and believes Hall did not do them justice.

"I know that the Ashington Group were quite intelligent men and they wanted to be educated," he says.

"But I'm afraid the author took the mickey a bit, you know, and had us laughing at what the different people in the group would say.

"There were some bits that made me feel it was a bit of an insult to these lads - because they were bright lads, the best kind of working people who wanted to be educated.

"There was nothing silly about them. And I don't think he did them much favours turning them into... entertaining clowns. Well, they weren't."

Cornish himself is not ready to stop working, but is aware that many of the scenes that he depicted have long since changed beyond recognition.

"That's why I'm sometimes referred to as a sort of historian," he says. "I didn't mean to be. But the things that I was fascinated by, in many ways, have slowly disappeared."

The Narrow World of Norman Cornish is at the University Gallery, Northumbria University, until 8 October. The Pitmen Painters is at the Duchess Theatre, London, from 5 October.

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