As the Great War raged, some of Cumbria’s volunteer soldiers were dispatched to India to defend the Empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’. Allan Tunningley explores how one of them found the ‘far pavilions’ of India a wonderful inspiration for his paintings. 

FROM an early age, Kendal-born James Henry Cookson showed a precocious artistic talent, winning a prestigious accolade for his paintings while still a boy.

He was born in Kendal in 1883, the youngest son of confectioner Thomas Cookson and his wife Esther.

In 1897, aged around 14, Jim won a national medal awarded by the Department of Science and Art.

He was also a skilled wood carver, earning his living with Simpsons of Kendal and working on much of the ornate carving in the renowned arts and craft house Blackwell at Bowness-on-Windermere.

After war broke out in 1914, Jim enlisted in the Border Regiment at the age of 32.

But he wasn’t destined to risk his life in the muddy, blook-soaked trenches of the Western Front.

Jim was one of 83 recruits from Kendal, Staveley and Burneside who joined up in 1915 to serve with the Border Regiment’s 2/4th Battalion along the North West Frontier – the present-day border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The aim was to release regular British Army units so they could be released to fight in the main theatres of war.

His great nephew Will Garnett, of Kendal, has carried out research into this aspect of Jim’s life and discovered that, as today, British soldiers experienced some problems with Afghan tribal insurgencies.

Mr Garnett’s research uncovered an entry in the Battalion War Diary of February 7, 1917, which records that 17 officers and 692 other ranks proceeded with the 5th Gurkhas to Sadar Garhi along with a section of the Mountain Battery to successfully and swiftly subdue insurgent activity.

But apart from that action, the battalion’s service in northern India was relatively benign.

Indeed, Mr Garnett says he only found one British death recorded – that of Robert George Birkett, whose widow lived at Library Road, Kendal. He died of influenza at the age of 37.

He also discovered that the battalion held the ‘proud record’ of not having lost a rifle or round of ammunition while they were serving at the North West Frontier.

As for Jim – well, he armed himself with two small notebooks, pencils and his watercolours and during his four years created a wonderfully evocative pictorial record of the scenes and landscapes that he encountered.

These have been preserved by his family.

Mr Garnett said: “He created an astonishing impresssion of the area, its people, its buildings, its life; and with it a truly magnificent snapshot of the soldiers at war.

“The illustrations show the variety of skills he possessed; whether drawing close-ups of soldiers or of locals; landscapes of the regions in which they were based; village scenes; or mosques – there is an understanding of subject, an astonishing attention to detail, which brings his subject matter to life.”

Jim Cookson died in Manchester in 1947.