Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Norman Cornish: Behind the Scenes: The Sketchbooks. Foreword by Melvyn Bragg. Edited by Ann and Mike Thornton. £35
Norman Cornish lived his life in County Durham, in Spennymoor, much of it in Bishop’s Close Street, where he grew up and where he later returned with his wife Sarah to raise his own two children, John and Ann. He was from mining stock and he spent thirty years of his working life from the age of fourteen down the pit. He was no different from thousands and thousands of working men in the middle years of the last century.
But at his death in 2014, at the age of 95, he left 269 sketchbooks, over five thousand individual drawings. These sketchbooks record the life of a community that has disappeared. They record it not as a visitor might, impressed by the back-breaking work of the men, expressing sympathy for the hardship and poverty of their lives. They record the life from the inside and they record it with an unflinching realism and accuracy. Norman became a full time artist when he was in his forties, but his subject remained his community, the people of Spennymoor, their terraced houses, their school, their fish and chip shop, their pubs, especially their pubs, and their coal mine.
In one painting a miner – we see only his stooped back and his flat cap – as so often anonymous, but human – walking the path to the mine at night – its flaring lights, the dark silhouette of the wheel and the billowing chimney. Above him are the telegraph poles, almost like crucifixes, bearing the cables that carry the power that this man sacrifices his life to produce. Another sketch shows a telegraph pole leaning forward, bearing a slumped, crucified body.
In another picture two miners walk purposefully along the pit road in the early morning. The fields are green and fresh, but the men’s path, heavily fenced, runs parallel with the railway line carrying the empty coal wagons towards the dark structures of the colliery.
At another time, two men sit at a pub table, their eyes looking at their stiff hands and the dominoes they shield, as they concentrate on the game, with their pints of beer on the table, half drunk.
Elsewhere, their rounded forms lean against the bar, or they sit crowded together, smoking, savouring a drink and talking, smiling. Another man might be holding a curious whippet tight on its leash as he stands taking a drink with a mate.
The women worked. There’s a beautiful study of a woman sitting in a wooden chair, looking down, concentrating, deftly paring an apple. Or she might be bathing a child in a tin bath. Or on her hands and knees with a bucket, scrubbing the floor. Or darning a sock. Or threading a sewing machine. Or ironing.
And the children. They stretch a skipping rope across Bishop Close Street and the little girls wait to take their turn as the rope swings back and to.
And there’s the children with their sledges in the snow and the man riding his bicycle precariously on the icy road.
Everywhere there is the life of the place, just as it was lived.
These are pictures that record the everyday life of so many people. Their realism, their honesty and truthfulness give these hard-working people the dignity and respect they were often denied in their lives.
Melvyn Bragg writes that Norman Cornish “has not only preserved a life lived by millions of people in this country and others round the world, he has given it significance and permanence that only a real artist can achieve.”
This beautiful book is a fine tribute to Norman’s work. Norman Cornish’s paintings and sketches are proof that art is important and matters in people’s lives.