Norman Cornish, culture, education and value

A blue plaque has been unveiled at Norman Cornish’s Spennymoor home in County Durham.

Norman Cornish was a contemporary of the internationally renowned Ashington Group of coal mining artists, who are the subject of Lee Hall’s hit play, ‘The Pitmen Painters’.

While Cornish is associated with the Spennymoor Setlement, the other pitmen painters’ story began in a Workers’ Educational Association art class taught by Robert Lyon in 1934. Lyon, a master of painting at a Newcastle college, was engaged to teach Art Appreciation to colliery workers in their own community. Finding that his slide-based lectures weren’t being well-received, he adopted a ‘learning by doing’ approach and encouraged his students to create their own art. The impact of his teaching and their talent has been astonishing.

Notably, the painters didn’t seek to make their fortunes out of their art. Money was not a driving force. Neither was a change in employment. They became friends of some of the most avant garde artists of the day and were feted by the British art world, but they still kept on working in the pit.

The Pitmen Painters’ work is now displayed at the Woodhorn Museum in Ashington.

The Museum’s website says that, “Today the Ashington Group is acclaimed worldwide, yet back in the 1930s none of them would have dreamed that a few evening classes would bring them such fame and international attention.”

The Ashington Group showed what can happen when we recognise that adult education and culture are not just for an exclusive élite or for direct financial return. That said, the small investment into those Art Appreciation classes has been returned in ways that could not have been imagined.

How many people across the world have been employed because of Lee Hall’s play about the group – arising from his own creative talent as a writer – and how many people have been inspired because of the pitmen painters’ examples?

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

5 Responses to Norman Cornish, culture, education and value

  1. Thank you, Ann – just writing a blog about the impact of keeping on cutting funding for adult education, and this is a timely reminder! Tricia

  2. Deborah Tate says:

    Hello from Woodhorn – home of the Pitmen Painters. Sorry to point this out, but although the wonderful Norman Cornish was a miner, he wasn’t connected to the Ashington Group at all. He belonged to County Durham, and the Pitmen Painters were based around Ashington in Northumberland. We are however looking forward to hosting an exhibition by Cornish between May and October. this will be a great opportunity for visitors to the museum to see both the superb works by Norman Cornish and the 80 paintings of the main Ashington Group Collection on permanent display at Woodhorn. Find out more at

    • Ann Walker says:

      Many thanks Deborah – and Ruth Tanner who sent an email comment – for pointing out the error in my original posting. I have amended the text thanks to your correction.

      Good luck with the exhibition.

  3. Ann Walker says:

    Additional information from Ruth Tanner:

    Norman Cornish was a member of the Pitmen’s Academy, which was an art school attached to the Spennymoor Settlement. The Settlement was set up in 1930, and you may be interested in their declared aims;

    “to encourage tolerant neighbourliness and voluntary social service, and to give its members opportunities for increasing their knowledge, widening their interests, and cultivating their creative powers in a friendly atmosphere”.

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