Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A memorable day with the great Norman Cornish

Norman Cornish: Self Portrait
Norman Cornish died on Friday. He was 94. He worked as coal miner before becoming a professional artist, part of the Pitman's Academy set up in the North-East in the 1930s. He, and his extraordinary work, featured regularly in The Northern Echo and on one occasion, features editor Brian Page went to his home in Spennymoor to interview him. After Norman's death, I asked Brian to write a piece on his meeting. Here are his words:

I arrived at a modest terraced house in modest Spennymoor. Passersby trudging down the street stared with open curiousity, in that County Durham way, before then nodding and giving me an “all reet”.
There was a wind whisking cast-aside sweetie papers and bits of newspaper up into the air and the threat of a damp drizzle in the sky.
I took a deep breath. Knocked on the door. A slight shiver of anxiety sweeping from head to toe.
They say you should never meet your heroes.
And yet here I was. At the door of the house of Norman Cornish.
“Are you the lad from The Northern Echo,” a friendly voice answered my knock. “Howay in, pet, Norman’s upstairs, he’ll be with you in a minute. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Sarah, Norman’s wife, beamed a smile. “Come on in and sit down a moment,” she said. And smiled again.
A moment later an unsmiling Norman Cornish arrived. He shook my hand and looked in my eye. He was a lean man, smartly dressed, swept back hair, dark eyes, watchful. He sat silently down and waited.
I blathered for England. Or at least for The Northern Echo. We wanted to do a major four-part series based on the newly published book on his life and work, the first part would be our interview, the other three based on the book itself and…
“Do you know anything about art?”
Er, no… not really. I mean I, that is, er, well, no, not really…”
A long pause. A fixed look.
“But I can tell you this Mister Cornish, I would have beaten half the newsroom to death to get this interview…
He looked at me. Waited. And then nodded. “It’s Norman,” he said. “Norman will do just fine.”
And that’s how it started, an interview that was meant to last an hour but ran to most of the day, with an interuption only when the wonderful Sarah insisted I stay and “have some liver and onions for your dinner”.
(For the non North-Easterners among you, dinner in County Durham is the proper term for what other folk call lunch).
Once Norman had worked out that I really did know his work, from early days to the latest paintings about to go on an exhibition tour, he warmed. And behind the shy and self-effacing exterior Norman Cornish was a warm man.
He spent long moments explaining to me about the sweeps and the curves and the geometry and the lines and angles of a painter-draughtsman’s craft.
And then he would look at me keenly. “Do you see,” he would say.
And I did. I think.
One painting, in particular, had always fascinated and, in some way horrified me, I told him. It was of miners making their way over a bridge, the pit wheels looming and a string of wired cross-head pylons pointing the way forward.
“Ah,” he replied. And for the first time smiled. “Calvary.”
And it all dropped in place. The pylons were there like a line of crucifixes, leading the way to the dreaded pit and the deep descent into an underground world…
At last there was a glimmering of understanding, of knowing.
And the day stretched on, cups of tea and more moments of insight. More glimpses of the wonderful world of the artist who had once been a miner.
When it was (long past) time to go, we shook hands at the door. Sarah smiled and Norman nodded. And then he, too smiled.
It was one of the best days…

You can view some of Norman Cornish's work on his website here.

A book of condolence is available at Northumbria University Gallery or by email to condolence@normancornish.com. An illustrated memorial lecture and appreciation of Norman’s life and work by his biographers, Bob McManners and Gillian Wales, will take place at Spennymoor Town Hall in September. Details will be published at www.normancornish.com/lecture and members of the public are welcome to attend.

Brian Page is a former deputy editor of The Northern Echo and an award-winning feature writer. He now runs his own freelance company, Page One Publications, based in York. He is the author of Still Lives, a novel based in the newspaper world and has a new book, Divided We Fall, due for publication in the autumn.

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