BARBARA HODGSON reviews a new Norman Cornish exhibition of work – on show for the first time – which re-traces the former miner’s footsteps to 1960s Paris
IT WAS 1966 and Norman Cornish, having just taken that ambitious first step from the world of mining into the world of professional art, was in for another culture shock – or so it seemed – with an invitation to swap the streets of Spennymoor for the boulevards of Paris.
The 47-year-old was approached by Tyne Tees Television with an idea for a documentary which involved spending a week in the French capital to cast his artistic eye over what it had to offer.
It was an irresistible invitation for Cornish who before making that brave career move had spent the previous 33 years – from the age of 14 – working down a pit, all the while developing his love of painting and capturing on canvas his now famous scenes of miners at work or chatting over a beer in the pub.
Here was his chance to visit Paris for the first time and sample something of the world of the French artists he’d read about and admired as a boy ... and he snatched it.
The resulting black-and-white documentary, Cornish in Paris, is a fascinating look at the city’s life and art through the eye of a northern artist, with the crew filming Cornish as he talked, observed and made drawings and sketches of the people and places he visited.
Now in a new exhibition at University Gallery in Newcastle – with which the artist, who turned 93 at the weekend, has had a long association – we get to see the artwork he produced there: busy street scenes, bustling cafe-bars and restaurant interiors making up a rich and detailed impression of Paris.
For those surprised by the last Cornish exhibition at the gallery – last summer’s The Narrow World of Norman Cornish featuring intimate family sketches which revealed a different side to the artist – this is a different body of work again.
And, says Mara-Helen Wood, its director and keeper of collections, there’s more to come.
“We’ve received a fantastic body of drawing from Norman’s studio that we are cataloguing and which will become part of the Cornish archives,” she tells me as she points out a stack of boxes of the newly-acquired unframed works.
And staff have a huge job on their hands with what is an absolute treasure trove of material for coming exhibitions, some of which will be for sale.
It was while sorting through it that Mara uncovered the Paris work which has never been exhibited.
“We were able to find 20-odd drawings, watercolours and sketches from the trip Norman took with Tyne Tees Television and they’re beautiful studies of Paris streets, cafes, bars restaurants, women looking in shop windows, men in bars.”
Then, by watching the Cornish in Paris video from the archives, she was hugely excited to find she could match up work with its scenes. They have had the video converted to DVD so it can play on a loop on a big screen during the exhibition, enabling us to watch as Cornish creates some of the works now on show.
It’s fascinating, from the moment we watch the artist board the plane for his first ever flight and see the Arc de Triomphe for the first time.