Norman Cornish, culture, education and value

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

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?