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6 January 2021

Atkinson Grimshaw’s glistening landscapes of Victorian prosperity

In the world of Atkinson Grimshaw it is always autumn or winter, always evening, and the rain has just passed through.   

By Michael Prodger

In the world of Atkinson Grimshaw it is always autumn or winter, always evening, and the rain has just passed through. In his pictures people are sparse; the streets, docks and bridges are emptying; the roads are muddy; and the lights in houses and shops are coming on. Above all, the moon always shines down, through either mist or high, broken cloud, lightly dousing everything with a wash of mystery.

If there are narratives to be found, then Grimshaw doesn’t explain them. His solitary wanderers, farmers returning home from the cities, and women of indeterminate status – they could be lovers, servants or prostitutes – walking along quiet lanes or by the walls of big houses, are there to add piquancy. He made pictures as invitations for the viewer to project stories of their own.

Small wonder, perhaps, that his paintings are found on the dust jackets of innumerable popular classics editions of Victorian novels, since they seem ready-made for Dickens, George Gissing, Wilkie Collins, the Brontës, et al. Bram Stoker was an avowed admirer of Grimshaw’s work, which is perhaps why the Whitby of Dracula bears the influence of the painter’s Yorkshire coastal scenes.

[See also: How Valerius de Saedeleer brought Belgian art to Wales]

Grimshaw’s story is itself a very Victorian, Dickensian one: he was an artist from the north of England who transcended unpromising beginnings to find success through hard work and sheer cussedness; he painted the industrial centres – especially the ports – where many of his clients made their wealth; he amassed a tidy fortune and lost it in enigmatic circumstances; he rose in society, knew many of the greatest artists of his day, but after his death he drifted back into near obscurity. He left no papers, his private life remains largely unknown, and few recorded comments are attributed to him.

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As an artist, too, he was quintessentially Victorian; his styles encompassing the period’s full range of fascinations, from pre-Raphaelite nature-miniaturism and fairy paintings to aesthetic movement girls in interiors and Whistlerian river scenes by way of classical tableaux that bear the stamp of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. If he wasn’t as good as the best artists in each of these fields, then as the maker of atmospheric night pictures he was peerless. As his friend Whistler, not a man given to humility, once said: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.”

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93) was never meant to be an artist. He was born in Leeds to strict Baptist parents – his father was a policeman to boot – and they pushed him into a steady career as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway Company. They viewed their son’s wish to be an artist with open hostility, to the point that his mother once destroyed all his paints. It was the encouragement of his wife, his cousin Frances Hubbard, that led him to leave the GNR in 1861 and take up painting full time. Grimshaw sold initially through small Leeds galleries and bookshops (one important early patron was as religious as the artist’s mother and would only buy works after Grimshaw assured him they hadn’t been painted on a Sunday), but London dealers such as William Agnew soon took notice.

[See also: How Joan Eardley painted the hard way]​

Although he was self-taught, by the end of the decade he had dropped the John from his name, had a painting accepted by the Royal Academy and was making enough money from his minutely observed flower pictures and still lifes to buy Knostrop Old Hall, a 17th-century manor house a little way outside Leeds, and rent another in Scarborough, which he named Castle by the Sea. It wasn’t until the mid-1870s that he specialised in nocturnes, his “moonlights”.

Grimshaw’s lack of formal training led him to some innovative touches: he would mix sand into his paint to give his light effects added sparkle, and would often use a camera obscura or photographs as the basis for his work to overcome the difficulties of mastering perspective. Indeed, he would occasionally go so far as to paint directly on to the photographs himself, a trait that caused some critics to question whether his works were paintings at all.

Innovation, however, came to an end in 1879 when, at 44, his finances hit a crisis. The exact circumstances are unknown, but it seems likely that he acted as guarantor for a high-sum bill drawn by a friend which went bad. As a result, he had to give up the seaside house and produce work in ever greater numbers. Whistler would make fun of Grimshaw’s six-days-a-week productivity, but it was a necessity, not a quirk of personality: he had six children to provide for (although his wife gave birth to some 15 in all), so couldn’t afford to slacken. Bailiffs became a feature of the family’s life and Grimshaw would go to London for extended periods to paint uninterrupted.

The daily churn meant that his paintings became repetitious: the single female figure seen from behind, the receding lane and the moonlight glisten were the popular motifs of his art and what his patrons wanted, so that is what he gave them. His own creativity was sacrificed, but perhaps the pictures were not just the result of financial strictures, but expressions of an obsession – and also tacit acknowledgements that he had reached the limits of his own talent.

[See also: How Edward McKnight Kauffer turned advertising into art]

This painting is one of innumerable similar scenes and an example of how skilled Grimshaw could be in his chosen genre. The gradations of washed colour as a mist begins to coalesce, the silvery wetness of the lane, the reflections of the pond, are all beautifully rendered. The trees and palings give structure to what could otherwise be a dissolving scene. And the story of the girl is there to be filled in: where is she going? Is it to the house with one bright light showing or is it to something or somewhere that lies beyond the indeterminacy of the dipping lane as it slips out of sight?

Some recent interpretations of Grimshaw’s work see him as celebrating a rapidly modernising world and his women as figures free to go about at night because gas lighting had made the city streets a safer place. But the girl in this painting hardly represents emancipation; there is drudgery in her errand and a touch of apprehension too as she sticks to the side of an empty road: her concerns ground what would otherwise be an ethereal scene.

Grimshaw left no indication that he meant his pictures to be read as a form of social commentary on Victorian industrialism, or that there was symbolism in the haves in the houses behind high walls and the have-nots beyond the pale, but the moralism of the Baptist faith of his childhood may not have completely disappeared.

Faith, however, does not seem to have been present at his end. On his deathbed, Grimshaw’s last words were: “No sun. No moon. No stars.” Whatever came next, it wasn’t the world of his pictures.

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control