John Atkinson Grimshaw’s haunting, evocative paintings of idyllic lanes, gas-lit streets and urban docksides are among the most popular works of the Victorian era. His “moonlights” are undoubtedly the finest compositions of their type; inexplicably, they manage to convey both a sense of nostalgia and modernity through their distinctive veneer. Few artists so completely manage to capture the time and feel of their place on canvas, but Grimshaw, time and time again, presents us with snapshots of Victorian life, illustrating how he and his contemporaries faced a period of such dramatic change. Read on to learn more about the life and career of this fascinating artist.
Born in 1836 in Leeds, John Atkinson Grimshaw was an unlikely prospect for becoming a painter. His strict Baptist parents, Mary Atkinson and David Grimshaw, considered painting to be a pastime that was not only unproductive, but foolish. Thus, Grimshaw had no artistic training early in his life, and his only exposure to art was through the local book dealers and framers who might have paintings for Grimshaw to study.
The family moved for a short time to Norwich but soon returned to Leeds, where Grimshaw’s mother kept a grocery store. His father served as a police officer for a short time but later took a position at the Great Northern Railway Company. In 1852, the young Grimshaw joined his father there as a clerk, and for a short time he appeared content with his career in the expanding railway business. However, in his spare time, Grimshaw continued to study art, visiting exhibitions and galleries where he gained exposure to both the artistic greats and his contemporaries.
Perhaps the biggest turning point in the young artist’s life was his marriage to his cousin, Frances, in 1858. The decision gave him a newfound freedom, allowing him to leave his family home. His wife and her father, who was the editor of the Wakefield Journal, supported Grimshaw’s yearning for a career as a painter, allowing him to leave his clerk’s position at the railway to dedicate himself to his art.
Despite his lack of training, his early works from the 1860s display a remarkable level of talent. Often capturing woodland scenes, they are astounding in their level of texture, detail and compositional balance, though they do show a lack of understanding of depth. However, his grasp of drawing and perspective quickly improved, and by the late 1860s, Grimshaw was producing extraordinary landscapes that hint at the brilliance of his mature style.
In these early works, it is clear that the appeal of the Pre-Raphaelites took hold of the young artist at an early age. He soon adopted the brilliant color palette and luminosity championed by the group, lending his canvases a startling immediacy. Disappointed by the “mechanized” ideologies of academic art, the Pre-Raphaelites utilized exacting details, luminous palettes and sincerity to subject that ushered in a new era of expression in the 19th-century British art world. Grimshaw took their teachings and used them to craft his ethereal landscapes, which bear striking photographic qualities unmatched by any other artist.
Grimshaw painted his first moonlight scene, Whitby Harbour by Moonlight, in 1867, marking a significant turning point in his career and output. By this time, Grimshaw had already exhibited in a number of local exhibitions and once at the Royal Manchester Institution — a major coup for the burgeoning painter. In 1868, two Grimshaw paintings were shown at the National Exhibition of Works of Art in Leeds; these were lent by Edward Simpson, a prominent shoe manufacturer who was an early supporter of Grimshaw. Simpson was just one of a handful of early collectors of his work, reflecting not only the appeal of his paintings by the end of the decade, but also his new financial stability.
A Flourishing Career
Grimshaw’s popularity and financial support allow him to rent Knostrop Old Hall in 1870. Located on the Temple Newsam estate just east of Leeds on the river Aire, the 17th-century stone mansion was filled with character and would often feature in his compositions. With its grand staircase and an imposing pair of gates that enclosed its garden, the house reflected the very rural romanticism that most appealed to the artist, and it remained his main residence for the rest of his life.
His new surroundings at Knostrop shepherded in a new chapter in his career. Inspired by the rural setting, he soon developed one of the most recurring themes in his works: the half-hidden house on a suburban lane. These types typically included the lone figure of a woman walking along the road bathed in moonlight, though he also included figures in gardens and ruins amongst the trees. Perhaps most importantly, his style gained a consistency that endured throughout his career, reflecting the signature atmospheric quality for which his paintings are known.
It was also during this period that he painted the first of his dockside scenes, in which he captured the rapidly changing urban landscape. Rainy streets punctuated by the warm glow of shop windows were captured through his distinctive misty haze, lending what might have been a drab and dirty scene the appearance of nostalgia and charm.
The 1870s was undoubtedly the most successful decade of Grimshaw’s life. Not only had he gained financial stability, but he also fine-tuned his unique style and technique while simultaneously exploring new subject matter. He also gained the representation of the London-based dealers Thomas Agnew and Son, significantly expanding his markets into both London and the provincial regions. He exhibited his first painting at the Royal Academy in 1874, another important achievement for the painter.
His experimentation with nocturnal scenes and moonlight was undoubtedly the most important development of the period. Though moonlight had been used in painting since the 17th century, Grimshaw uniquely used the effects of the moon’s soft light to illuminate contemporary England. The newly laid out suburban streets were an inviting subject for Grimshaw, as were the urban landscapes of Leeds and London, the docks of Glasgow and Liverpool, and the ports of Whitby, Hull and Scarborough. Capturing them under the veil of night, Grimshaw softens the harshness and grime brought about by modern life and industrialism. Moonlight in a Grimshaw painting animates the inviting beauty of the night, imbuing his subjects with a sense of mystery, isolation and timelessness that still resonates.
An Established Painter
Everyday scenes of modern urban life appealed to Grimshaw for the remainder of his career, and he took advantage of the aesthetic possibilities that industrialization offered. His love the 19th-century romantic poets undoubtedly contributed to the romanticism of his own works, and he imbued them with an atmospheric mask that brings to mind a poetic mood. Grimshaw’s love of Keats, Shelley, Longfellow and Tennyson is well known; he derived titles for his paintings from their works and even named his children after characters from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. His romantic approach offers an aesthetic antidote to the materialism of his age, while also preserving a timeless snapshot of his place and time.
By the 1880s, his reputation as a painter of renown was established, and in 1885, two more of his paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy. In another major coup, he was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Grosvenor Gallery in their summer exhibition that same year. While the late 1880s saw a lessening of artistic output from the artist, his skill and devotion to his subjects remained. He also continued to experiment with atmosphere — over the last winter of his life, he produced a series of snow scenes that were exhibited in Leeds in the spring of 1893. He died on October 31 of that same year at Knostrop at the young age of 57.
A memorial exhibition of his paintings was held at the Leeds Art Gallery in 1897; regrettably, he quickly lost his reputation in the decades that followed. However, the 1950s and 60s saw a resurgence of interest in his work as collectors once again looked with interest on paintings of the Victorian age. Since then, the appeal of Grimshaw’s paintings has not dissipated. Modern audiences continue to appreciate his unique depiction of the Victorian world under the veil of poetic nostalgia that is unique to his output.