The Painting Mystery
By Scott Bigelow
The recent donation of an historic piece of art to the Robeson County History Museum presented a puzzle and a revelation.
The oil-on-canvas painting was a gift from the family of the late John Wishart Campbell, a long-time Lumberton attorney who passed away in 2017. The unsigned painting had been in his family for two generations, but little else was known about it.
The painting was crafted sometime in the first half of the 20th century by a talented artist depicting the Lumber River as it passes by Lumberton. Because the painting is old and unsigned, the artist’s name may never be known.
Museum volunteer Monica Doares was intrigued and wanted to know more. Her investigation unraveled a piece of the mystery.
Doares believes the painting was created by an itinerant artist. This type of artist travelled from town to town to earn their keep by producing paintings of local people or landscapes, she said.
Dating the painting is not precise, but there are clues. The brick buildings pictured on the Lumberton bank of the river were the town’s power and water facilities constructed sometime around 1900. The facilities ushered in modern municipal services to a growing town.
As Doares continued to research the painting, the name Benjamin Forest Williams emerged. A Lumberton native, Williams was an artist and the first curator of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Was he the artist?
Doares was able to unearth the connection between Williams and painting. She learned that years ago the painting was damaged while the Campbells renovated their kitchen. Charles Campbell, John Wishart’s father, was the painting’s original owner.
Campbell sent it to the North Carolina Museum of Art to be restored, which was a service the new museum offered to the public.
“When you have something repaired at the museum, somebody has to sign for it, and Williams did,” Doares said. “We thought he might be the painter, but later I realized that he was the person who released the painting back to its owner.”
The late Benjamin Forest Williams is one of the most remarkable individuals in the North Carolina art world. What many don’t know is that his roots are in Lumberton, where he was born on Christmas Day, 1925. His mother, Mamie Williams, was Lumberton’s postmaster until 1958.
He studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, and Black Mountain College near Asheville before earning a degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Williams also studied in France with Henri Matisse before returning to North Carolina in 1949 to join the two-year-old North Carolina Museum of Art. He was appointed curator in 1956 and served in that capacity until 1979.
Williams also served as North Carolina State University’s curator of art and was a key player in the founding of the Friends of the College Series and the Gregg Museum.
Williams’ giant footprint in the arts has returned home, through the Robeson County History Museum’s painting. Through the exhibit, the museum demonstrates “how art transcends time in many different forms,” Doares said.
The image remained in Williams’ possession for some time before Charles Campbell remembered to have it returned. Whether it was displayed in Williams’ home as a reminder of home or in storage is not known.
The painting now is prominently displayed among other Lumber River artifacts. It may be viewed during Museum hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon and Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m.