Bowes Museum and Norman Cornish, a cultural start to 2020

An empty house following the Festive Season meant I could escape the domestic scene for the day, a break from cooking and cleaning. The weather was kind as for once the sun was shining and the sky was blue as I headed to Barnard Castle and Bowes Museum.

Bowes on a sunny winter’s day
A sculpture in the grounds among the Woodside Walk and play area

A popular setting for frequent visits although today I was focused on the Norman Cornish exhibition (there until February 23rd 2020)


Note – those with children may  be interested in the Lego Trail within the museum – keeping the young visitors occupied whilst you look at the exhibits, it appeared very popular and well planned.


Born in Spennymoor at a time when the local Durham pits were still active, the artist spent his life portraying ‘moments in time’ and therefore leaving, as his legacy, a picture history of a bygone culture.

Norman Cornish started his working life at a local pit and only committed to painting full time as his reputation grew and commissions increased (although from my further reading I noted that this was not an easy decision and he needed much encouragement).

The entrance fee to the museum covers all the exhibitions so I worked my way to the Cornish exhibits via both the temporary and static exhibitions – an interesting hour, especially the small although informative showing of fashion photography by Chris Moore. Not a name or genre I am familiar with, his narrative accompanying a video of catwalk fashion was very insightful.

The Cornish exhibition is not vast, enough to illustrate his technique and talent whilst also planting a seed in the viewer for more information regarding other works. Of this, so I discovered, there is plenty to be found locally. He was born in November 1919 and so many local galleries and museums celebrated his centenary – for example Spennymoor, Bishop Auckland and Durham – with displays.

Two things came to my mind whilst standing in Bowes museum. First, listening to a comment from a fellow viewer who had noticed that there are very few of his characters smoking. Once I heard this, I searched the paintings and also then wondered why this was. I am of an age to recall that smoking was a common habit and the majority of Pubs were ‘smoke filled’ yet in his paintings very few of the men were smoking nor is there an impression of the ‘indoor fog’ that normally inhabited the pubs and inns.

Secondly, the majority of buildings he painted are still standing and I noticed, and collected, a leaflet titled ‘Cornish – The Norman Cornish Trail’ which described a short walk around a section of his hometown highlighting the scenes he painted.

The sun was still shining and as Spennymoor was only a short detour on my way home I thought I would follow this up. Encouraged also by noting that ‘Edward Street’ was one of the stops on the trail. Of all the paintings in the exhibition this was the one I had most admired. Just an ordinary wet autumn day, the rain so obviously falling that I thought if I touched the painting my hand would come away wet.

Once at Spennymoor the start of the trail – Town Hall – was easy enough to find and yet I failed right away. I went right instead of left and so was at Item 10 not Item 1!

Notice Stand at each Trail Point


Deciding to stick with it and go backwards did not make any difference.  I came across others also undertaking the trail and was greeted by ‘locals’ who are used to seeing such visitors to their town. The pride in the ‘local boy’ was obvious, and some stopped to share a little knowledge or pointed out the next stop on my list – one even noted I was going backwards.


Edward Street looks so different now compared to the painting as cars are now parked on both sides of the road making the area look cramped and narrow, different from the original scene with no car insight. St Paul’s Church still stands proud at the top of the street.

St Paul’s Church
Rosa Street School


Rosa Street school is still active although surrounded by modern housing.


Zebra Crossing


The Zebra Crossing that Cornish often used illustrating everyday life, such as children heading to school, was easy to find – and it looks very unchanged, even the shop fronts were familiar.

Before leaving the town, I called in The Bob Abley Art Gallery adjacent to the Town Hall, which has a permanent exhibition of local artists many of which show scenes of Miners at work before the landscape changed forever.

View from entrance of Bowes museum

Author: Terri Larcombe

Terri is recently retired and commenced this site to share her experience of retirement, both as an information resource and a Lifestyle Blog

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