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'News from My Lad' - James Campbell

Old locksmith reading a letter in his workshop

Subject

In this picture Campbell capitalised on public interest in the fate of troops engaged in putting down the Indian Mutiny. It shows an old locksmith who has just received a letter from his soldier son. On the letter can be seen the words:

'Lucknow March 1858. My dear old Daddy, I dare say you will read this in the old shop and here am I under the burning sun of India.'

When first exhibited at the Liverpool Academy in 1858 the painting included an envelope on the floor of the shop which was inscribed 'Enoch Smith, locksmith, Kirkdale, England'. No contemporary record mentions an actual locksmith of that name working in the parish of Kirkdale to the north of Liverpool. Campbell himself lived at Brunswick Square, Kirkdale. He may have decided to paint in this local link to attract viewers at the Liverpool Academy and then painted it out for its London showing in 1859.

detail showing hands holding a letter

Technique

The model for the old man appears to be the same used in 'Waiting for legal advice'|.

In London the picture was quite well reviewed and was subsequently bought by George Rae the Birkenhead banker who was one of Campbell's best patrons. The Walker Art Gallery bought it in 1964 from one of Rae's descendants. In 1860 Campbell exhibited another picture approximately the same size as this entitled 'Home and Rest' (private collection) showing a soldier returned from India convalescing after the loss of one of his arms.

detail showing old man's face

Chronology

James Campbell (1828-1893), son of a Liverpool insurance clerk, studied at the Liverpool Academy and at the Royal Academy. For a few years from about 1856-1862 he was influenced by Pre-Raphaelite ideas without however becoming involved in the gravity or moral earnestness of subject that others pursued. His was ultimately more a flirtation with the technical side of Pre-Raphaelite practice. The best of Campbell's little pictures are delightfully straightforward and minutely detailed accounts of respectable lower-middle class and artisan life in Liverpool. He is the most Dickensian of all the Pre-Raphaelites.