The Joy of Museums

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“Breaking the News” by John Longstaff

“Breaking the News” by John Longstaff depicts the scene inside a miner’s cottage with an old miner breaking the unbearable news to a young woman of her husband’s death in a mining accident. The woman holds an infant in her arms, and two other miners are at the doorway, carrying the body of the husband on a stretcher.

“Breaking the News” became etched in the popular imagination, and by the 1890s was “known by reproduction in every mining township in Australia”. Painted when Longstaff was still an art student, it won him a travelling scholarship in 1887. At the time it was described it as “a vivid and accurate presentment of a familiar incident in Australian life”. According to a biographer, Longstaff’s childhood memory of a mining fatality was the direct inspiration for “Breaking the News”:

“following the tragic cortège from mine-head to cottage door, he had heard the stricken cry of the young wife at the sight of the stretcher-bearers’ burden”.

Writer and poet Henry Lawson after viewing “Breaking the News” wrote glowingly about the painting’s sentimental and social impact in an 1899 essay. In turn, J. F. Archibald, the then owner of this painting, commissioned Longstaff to paint a portrait of Lawson. Archibald greatly admired the portrait, prompting him to set up a bequest for the Archibald Prize, now Australia’s most prestigious prize for portraiture. Longstaff went on to win the Archibald five times.

John Longstaff Longstaff was appointed an official war artist with the Australian Infantry Force in the First World War. He was later knighted for his services in 1928, the first Australian artist to have had this honour.

Essential Facts:

  • Title:                      Breaking the News
  • Artist:                    John Longstaff
  • Year:                      1887
  • Place of Origin:   Australia
  • Material:              Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:        109.7 × 152.8 cm (43.2 × 60.2 in)
  • Museum:              Art Gallery of Western Australia

Essential Facts about the Artist:

  • Artist:           John Longstaff
  • Born:           1861 – Clunes, Victoria, Australia
  • Died             1941 (aged 60) – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  • Major Paintings:
    • Breaking the News, 1887, Art Gallery of Western Australia
    • Gippsland, Sunday night, February 20th, 1898, 1898, National Gallery of Victoria
    • Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper’s Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861, 1907, National Gallery of Victoria


” Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.” Australian Proverb



Photo Credit: By John Longstaff, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons