John Atkinson Grimshaw

by Alexander Robertson


In 1861 at the age of twenty-four, John Atkinson Grimshaw gave up his job as a clerk on the Great Northern Railway determined to earn his living as an artist. Such a decision in the northern manufacturing town of Leeds must have seemed foolhardy, especially as the young man had received no formal training and was already married with a growing family.

This determination was immediately commended by Edmund Bates, a local collector, who supported the action and congratulated the artist for his abandonment of ‘a distasteful source of permanent competency for the pure love of a higher inspiration’. Bates and his friends already owned paintings by Grimshaw so that within a year the artist seemed well set.

The early pictures have a hesitant touch and a generalised manner of handling, but their main appeal is the directness of observation. A Mossy Bank (Cat. no.1) is typical of these early paintings: delicate in touch, with shallow depth, but already showing a sensitivity of tone and detail which were to be a hallmark of the artist’s career for the next thirty years.

Another source of influence on artists was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young artists who sought to sweep away much of post Renaissance methods and doctrine with a fresh look at the natural world in a direct way avoiding Old Master methods.

They were championed by the leading art critic and writer John Ruskin whose dictum of ‘truth to nature’ and direct observation became watchwords for progressive artists. In Leeds, Grimshaw’s slightly older contemporary John William Inchbold was an associate of the Brotherhood and knew Ruskin. His paintings were certainly an example for Grimshaw to follow and provided valuable direct contact with the latest art theories of careful observation and meticulous detail. Nab Scar (Cat. no.2) is Grimshaw’s homage to the Pre-Raphaelite doctrine and has a searing immediacy with its vibrant colours and sharp drawing.

By the end of the 1860s Grimshaw had established a place in local art circles and his more elaborate oil paintings fetched £125; but the early style was now giving way to more atmospheric affects and a growing interest in depicting moonlight. This was to open up whole new possibilities where the artist could indulge his love of poetry and medieval history.

The 1870s was Grimshaw’s most diverse and successful decade. The family moved to Knostrop Old Hall on the east side of town near the River Aire. This was a seventeenth century stone-built manor house with a walled garden or pleasaunce, panelled rooms and as such produced the genuine atmosphere which the artist craved. There he could indulge his love of medieval legend, filling the place with objets d’art and there the children bore names taken from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Grimshaw’s love of poetry especially Keats, Browning, Shelley, Longfellow and Tennyson comes across in the moonlight pictures which often bear titles referring to ‘the goddess of night’ or ‘Dame Autumn’. The titles could enhance the appeal of a painting when Grimshaw sought to imbue a mood of nostalgia, longing or memories of times past. Certainly the majority of his pictures seem to be moonlight scenes with effects of cloud, twilight, mist and different light sources on which he calls.

Autumn Twilight (Cat. no.3) painted at Knostrop shows the woodland around Barden Tower in North Yorkshire, a favourite venue since the 1860s. Here in a scene of fallen, damp leaves an ebbing sun and a dying year, the artist gives us the essence of Autumn.

An enduring subject in Grimshaw’s oeuvre is that of the winding lane with a lonely figure walking past an isolated mansion half hidden behind stone walls. Such a simple composition created opportunities for an endless variation of elements usually brought together from different sources both actual and published in architectural histories. The real subject is the painting of light often flooding down through tree branches and reflected in puddles; casting a myriad of shadows on the walls and roadway. Near Leahurst, Kent (Cat. no.10) gives us these qualities in a display of the artist’s skills.

From such paintings it was a small step to show a house itself and give a little more sentiment to the scene with titles inviting the viewer’s participation. Waiting (Cat. no.14) and Evening Gold (Cat. no.23) seem to have all the qualities found in some of Tennyson’s poetry where human longing and the passing of time suggest an almost unbearable melancholy.

However, pure landscape remained an important element for Grimshaw with country lanes or remote lakeland hills providing subjects as in October afternoon (Cat. no.4). The isolation of such spots seems to attract the artist whether it be the countryside near Scarborough up to Whitby or the rolling vales of the north. If the family home at Knostrop provided a refuge from everyday cares and the tragedies of bereavement, then the house at Scarborough, Castle-by-the-Sea was a place of security. Grimshaw paint-ed the town more than any other subject from 1871 until the last years. Its natural position with two bays and the castle; the old harbour and the Georgian new town were a gift to an artist and Grimshaw’s paintings of the town from the harbour are one of his major legacies.

In the mid 1870s he felt the need to compete with fellow artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema and James Tissot who produced fashionable interiors whether set in ancient Rome or the contemporary villas of St John’s Wood. It was at this time that Grimshaw’s pictures were handled by the London dealers Thomas Agnew and Son and later Arthur Tooth who brought his work to a wider public. A painting such as Fiamella (Cat. no.17) shows Grimshaw successfully imitating the technical bravura of Alma-Tadema in the depiction of marble and in other paintings the surface of mosaic.

These pictures of modern life were produced for the art market even though several depict the artist’s own homes at Knostrop and Castle-by-the-Sea and family members modelled for them. The French artist Tissot remained the prototype for pictures such as Summer and Dulce Domum where attention to surface gloss, detail and brilliant colour were highly successful. At the same time there were paintings of nymphs and winged spirits, including Iris and Goddess of Night which further developed Grimshaw’s talents, pandering to Victorian taste for fantasy and legend.

Around 1880 a change occurred in Grimshaw’s output when a financial crisis forced him to honour the debt of a friend. It may be that Harrogate solicitor Walter Battle took over this burden and was paid back in finished canvases (Battle owned eighty paintings by Grimshaw when the artist died). As a result the output of work significantly increased but more importantly new subjects were introduced including the cityscapes of London and Leeds, the river views of London and the major output of dock side pictures set in Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull and Gloucestor.

The great ports of Victorian Britain were the life-line of the Empire; the source of wealth and trade. It was therefore not surprising that Grimshaw’s views became so popular although over-production of the genre has tended to harm his reputation. In this exhibition we can see some fine examples. Again it is the artist’s attention to detail which attracts the eye: the masts and rigging, the reflection of light and colour in the road, the bustle of people and carriages as in Liverpool docks by moonlight (Cat. no.28). For today’s spectator as well as Victorian contemporaries it is the attention to everyday reality which appeals. No doubt the original scene was grey, dreary, dirty and even smelly but Grimshaw has transformed the scene and overlaid it with an all enveloping sheen of atmosphere and colour bringing out the picturesque and poetic possibilities of the scene. This aspect of Victorian life is gone forever but the artist has preserved it for posterity and stamped it with his own vision.

Of all the most important aspects of Grimshaw’s later career, perhaps the cityscapes are the most successful and impressive. The scale and breadth seem enhanced and the technique broader and more assured with a use of glazes to create a more luscious effect in the great river views of the Thames. Inner city streets whether in Leeds or London caught the artist’s eye and these remain among the most fascinating subjects which Grimshaw chose. They are far removed from the lonely suburban lanes but the bustle and night-life fascinated him just as much. In the early 1880s the artist had a studio in Manresa Road, Chelsea and family tradition remarks on a friendship with James McNeil Whistler. The connection is significant as both artists loved the River Thames. In his 10 O’Clock Lecture, Whistler noted how the warehouses became campanili when night descended and the whole aspect of the river was transformed. For Grimshaw the effects of night had been central to his art also, so it is not surprising that the two artists shared an affinity. Grimshaw’s use of diverse light sources could be used to good effect in paintings of Hampstead Hill (Cat. no.20) and Piccadilly at night (Cat. no.25), where new aspects of the capital’s activities are revealed. In her novel Mary Barton Mrs Gaskell refers to the appeal of lighted shop windows at night with their goods on display in the brightly lit windows.

In a career of thirty years Grimshaw built up a reputation as an artist who presented a vision of contemporary life which others chose to ignore. In his last years he appeared to be turning to new subjects presented in a different way with a new lightness which may indicate a turning point. The paintings are often estuary views, small in scale but with an economy of means which seems to avoid the former heavy detail. At anchor (Cat. no.30) is a delightful example which manages to achieve a calm tranquillity with the utmost simplicity.

In what turned out to be the last winter of his life Grimshaw produced a series of snow scenes, some with musical titles, giving an acknowledgement to Whistler. Snow and mist: caprice in yellow minor (Cat. no.31) painted over the winter of 1892-93 avoids detail altogether but is given animation by the yellow film of mist and the figure trudging through the snow. Mood, atmosphere, and simplicity of means are the watchwords. In these final works Grimshaw can choose single elements to make his point. As many artists have come to learn, it is the art of leaving out which is the greatest lesson. Grimshaw died of stomach cancer on 31 October 1893 at Knostrop in Leeds. Today he is seen as someone who shows us aspects of life one hundred and fifty years ago. But it is not merely illustration, it is a transformation revealing to us how his own contemporaries faced a world of change which each age must do.


Alexander Robertson


Taken from :