John Atkinson Grimshaw

English Aesthetic Artist

1836 - 1893

Nightfall on the Thames

Atkinson Grimshaw was born in Leeds, his father was a policeman, & he started work as a railway clerk. His parents were opposed to his taking up art as a career. Grimshaw was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and in his youth produced vivid, highly finished landscapes. Gradually, Grimshaw developed his own highly distinctive style, and subject matter. He became a consummate painter of twilight, night time, & autumnal scenes. Grimshaw spent holidays at Scarborough, & many of his pictures were set there, and in Whitby. He also painted nocturnal harbor & dockside pictures. He spent some time in London.

Grimshaw was, though, a Northerner, and Leeds remained his base, and his commercial success allowed him to buy Knostrop Hall on the outskirts of the city. For a short time in the mid 1880's, he did have a London Studio. It is rumored that he was a friend of Whistler. Grimshaw's output was much more varied than just this however. He painted portraits, interiors, fairy pictures, and most accomplished fancy pictures, of attractive gorgeously dressed young women in opulent interiors. In the early 1890's Grimshaw's style seemed to be developing in new directions, three pictures showing this are Sand, Sea, Summer, and Fantasy of 1892, and 'At Anchor' 1893. He seemed to be moving towards a freer, less formal style of painting, perhaps influenced to a degree by Whistler. Unhappily this change of direction was not to, be as Grimshaw died of cancer in 1893.

Source: Victorian Art in Britain

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a Victorian-era artist, a "remarkable and imaginative painter" known for his city scenes and landscapes.

His early paintings were signed "JAG," "J. A. Grimshaw," or "John Atkinson Grimshaw," though he finally settled on "Atkinson Grimshaw."

Photograph of John Atkinson Grimshaw

Whitby Harbour by Moonlight (1867)
by John Atkinson Grimshaw

But when people's minds are weakened by a sense of their own infirmities, and when they are drawing on to their latter ends, they will be moved on the slightest occasions, whether those offer from within or without them. And this, frequently, the un-penetrating world, calls humanity; when all the time, in compassionating the miseries of human nature, they are but pitying themselves; and were they in strong health and spirits, would care as little for anybody else as thou or I do.

Samuel Richardson - Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady

He was born 6 September 1836 in Leeds. In 1856 he married his cousin Frances Hubbard (1835-1917). In 1861, at the age of 24, to the dismay of his parents, he departed from his first job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to pursue a career in art. He began exhibiting in 1862, under the patronage of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, with paintings mainly of birds, fruit, and blossoms. He became particularly successful in the 1870's and was able to afford to rent a second home in Scarborough, which also became a favorite subject.

Grimshaw's primary influence was the Pre-Raphaelites. True to the Pre-Raphaelite style, he put forth landscapes of accurate color and lighting, and vivid detail. He often painted landscapes that typified seasons or a type of weather; city and suburban street scenes and moonlit views of the docks in London, Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow also figured largely in his art. By applying his skill in lighting effects, and unusually careful attention to detail, he was often capable of intricately describing a scene, while strongly conveying its mood. His "paintings of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene."

'Dulce Domum' (1885), on whose reverse Grimshaw wrote, "mostly painted under great difficulties," captures the music portrayed in the piano player, entices the eye to meander through the richly decorated room, and to consider the still and silent young lady who is meanwhile listening. Grimshaw painted more interior scenes, especially in the 1870's, when he worked until the influence of James Tissot and the Aesthetic Movement.

Dulce Domum (Detail): 1885

'On Hampstead Hill' is considered one of Grimshaw's finest, exemplifying his skill with a variety of light sources, in capturing the mood of the passing of twilight into the onset of night. In his later career this use of twilight, and urban scenes under yellow light were highly popular, especially with his middle-class patrons.

Hampstead: 1881

His later work included imagined scenes from the Greek and Roman empires, and he also painted literary subjects from Longfellow and Tennyson - pictures including Elaine and The Lady of Shalott. (Grimshaw named all of his children after characters in Tennyson's poems.)


The painting appeared with the following epigraph: "'and the dead, steer'd by the dumb, went upward with flood. ' Idylls of the King, Tennyson." According to the author of the Soethby's catalogue entry:

Atkinson Grimshaw greatly loved the poetry of Lord Tennyson, and was much inspired by it. In the 1870's, besides this highly romantic picture of "Elaine", he painted at least two versions of the Lady of Shalott. The stories are analogues, and both describe the death of fair maidens, who died for love of Sir Lancelot, and whose bodies float down the river to the place of Camelot. Grimshaw's direct source for this painting is Tennyson's "Elaine and Lancelot" (first published in 1859), from which he quotes. Elaine was known as "the lily maid of Astolat"; the barque is her bier, and is steered by a faithful servitor of her household, who was deaf and dumb. In her hand she bears a letter telling Lancelot of her love for him, and begging him to pray for her soul.

In 1876 Grimshaw built a turreted folly overlooking the two bays of Scarborough; he proudly called it "Castle by the Sea", and proclaimed its name in a large plaque over the front door. Here he painted "Elaine", and here, the following year, were born his twin children who he christened Elaine and Lancelot.

Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" Idyll

The Lady of Shalott

Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott"

In the 1880's, Grimshaw maintained a London studio in Chelsea, not far from the comparable facility of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After visiting Grimshaw, Whistler remarked that "I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures." Unlike Whistler's Impressionistic night scenes, however, Grimshaw worked in a realistic vein: "sharply focused, almost photographic," his pictures innovated in applying the tradition of rural moonlight images to the Victorian city, recording "the rain and mist, the puddles and smoky fog of late Victorian industrial England with great poetry."

Some artists of Grimshaw's period, both famous and obscure, generated rich documentary records; Vincent Van Gogh and James Smetham are good examples. Others, like Edward Pritchett, left nothing. Grimshaw left behind him no letters, journals, or papers; scholars and critics have little material on which to base their understanding of his life and career.

Grimshaw died 13 October 1893, and is buried in Woodhouse cemetery, Leeds. His reputation rested, and his legacy is probably based on, his townscapes. The second half of the twentieth century saw a major revival of interest in Grimshaw's work, with several important exhibits of his canon.

Source: Wikipedia

A Golden Beam

The house featured in this picture is fictional but was one that Grimshaw returned to in several of his works. A notable example is In the 'Golden Olden Time' which is in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston. This composition of a figure walking down a lane bathed in autumnal sunshine, with a Victorian mansion hidden behind an imposing park wall was a theme that he worked on principally in the 1880's and 1890's.

A Lane in Headingley Leeds: 1881

A Manor House in Autumn: 1881

A Wintry Moon: 1886

A Wintry Moon is a beautiful work of art in a natural setting. A clear expression of natural art in a simple and light form, the painting conveys meaning in a usual way. The European art has been reproduced with great effort and can be bought in a number of sizes and frames.


Autumn Morning

It is with words as with sunbeams -- the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.

Robert Southey

Blackman Street, London: 1885

Bowder Stone, Borrowdale: ca 1863-88

Day Dreams

Endymion on Mount Latmus: 1879

"In Greek mythology Endymion was a beautiful youth who spent much of his life in perpetual sleep. Endymion's parentage varies among the different ancient references and stories, but several traditions say that he was originally the king of Elis. According to one tradition, Zeus offered him anything that he might desire, and Endymion chose an everlasting sleep in which he might remain youthful forever. According to another version of the myth, Endymion's eternal sleep was a punishment inflicted by Zeus because he had ventured to fall in love with Zeus's wife, Hera. In any case, Endymion was loved by Selene, the goddess of the moon, who visited him every night while he lay asleep in a cave on Mount Latmus in Caria; she bore him 50 daughters. A common form of the myth represents Endymion as having been put to sleep by Selene herself so that she might enjoy his beauty undisturbed."

Evening, Knostrop Old Hall: 1870

Evening, Whitby Harbour: 1893

Forge Valley Scarborough: 1877

After his marriage in 1858, John Atkinson Grimshaw was able to devote himself to painting. By 1870, he was successful enough to rent Knostrop Old Hall, a 17th century mansion near Temple Newsam, which features in many of his pictures.

Grimshaw, who lived in Leeds, often spent considerable time during the summer staying at Scarborough. He first rented a house in the town in the late 1870's, following the death of three of his children at his Leeds home. He called it 'Castle-by-the-Sea'. Perched on the cliff top just below Scarborough Castle, near St Mary's Church, it has magnificent views of both the north and south bays. The name of his Scarborough house came from the eponymous poem by Longfellow. The move to the coast inspired much of the artist's most attractive work, as throughout his career he was always attracted by ships, the sea, and docks, in fact all things maritime.

John Atkinson Grimshaw is best known for his powerfully atmospheric paintings of twilight, night-time, and autumnal scenes, and his pictures in the Scarborough Art Gallery reflect this.

Glasgow Docks

Gourock Near The Clyde Shipping Docks

Greenock: 1893

Greenock is situated on the south bank of the River Clyde about 22 miles from Glasgow. The origin of the name of the town is thought to derive from the Gaelic 'grianaig' meaning 'sunny', and this has been translated as 'sunny place' or 'sunny knoll'. Another more romantic theory is that it takes it's name from a 'Green Oak' tree that grew in the town centre. A horseshoe marks the spot where the tree was deemed to have grown. It would certainly ensure the correct pronunciation if this were true, as it is commonly mispronounced as 'Gren - ock' when it should be 'Green - ock'.

Greenock Dock

Humber Docks Hull: 1884

During the early 1880's Grimshaw's production increased dramatically and he sought new subjects in urban centers and dock scenes. Most of these works were night scenes, enabling Grimshaw to transform a subject familiar enough by day into a place of mystery, or even poetry. Grimshaw's paintings of the 1880's have a much greater breadth as he sought to accommodate the possibilities of river and city life. It was recognized by his contemporaries that these moonlit views were not just topographical but fitted in with the literary mood of the times, turning what was potentially squalid into art.

David Bromfield describes Grimshaw's port scenes as 'icons of commerce and the city. They are remarkable in that they record the contemporary port's role within Victorian life; they appealed directly to Victorian pride and energy. They also show that same darkness, a mysterious lack of complete experience of the subject which one associates with large cities and big businesses, which Dickens recounts so well in 'Bleak House' and 'Great Expectations' and for which Grimshaw's moonlight became a perfect metaphor'.

Humber Dockside Hull: 1881

Iris: 1886

In Greek mythology, Iris is the personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods. As the sun unites Earth and heaven, Iris links the gods to humanity. She travels with the speed of wind from one end of the world to the other, and into the depths of the sea and the underworld.

Knostrop Hall, Early Morning: 1870

Landscape with a Winding River: 1868

Lane In Cheshire: 1883

Liverpool Customs House

Liverpool Quay by Moonlight: 1887

One of Grimshaw's most popular subjects was that of the dockside scene, particularly of Liverpool and especially the Salt house Docks and the Customs House. At this period Liverpool was one of the great ports of Victorian Britain, embodying trade and overseas expansion. The appeal to collectors of the day was not just the contemporary element of trade, but the transformation of a probably drab and dirty street into a painting of mysterious depths where everything is enfolded by a blanket of twilight gloom. The words of Whistler's 'Ten O'clock Lecture' come to mind:

'And when the evening clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili...and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us…'

The artist makes these dock scenes his own. The mundane is transformed by the artist's vision. The ordinary becomes special. The subject becomes a Grimshaw.

London Bridge Half Tide: 1884

John Atkinson Grimshaw's early work was largely influenced by Pre-Raphaelites such as William Inchbold. His subject matter ranged from hunting scenes to still lives, from seascapes to classical re-creations of ancient Greece in the style of Alma-Tadema. Deeply rooted in his hometown of Leeds and the North of England, it comes as no surprise that his first patrons were from the North, many of whom were members of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Grimshaw's moon light scenes rank as his most beloved paintings, and the present canvas is a superb work from the artist's mature oeuvre. Grimshaw was attracted by urban centers like London that rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution, and by the 1880's he had begun to regularly paint sites in London. He was especially drawn to the Pool of London area with its busy shipping traffic against the background of riverside warehouses and markets. These atmospheric scenes proved to be popular with his major patrons, the newly moneyed Industrialists. In the present composition, the mysterious silhouettes of schooners and a barge on the still waters of the Thames rise against a moonlit sky. Through the fog looms London Bridge in the distance. Color becomes an important element from the specks of orange applied with a staccato-like rhythm dance across the water as reflections of the city lights to the greenish halo that encircles the moon. Although the painting evokes a seemingly quiet and contemplative mood, by no means does the fall of darkness signal the end of the working day. Despite the late hour, dark shadows of figures in the foreground appear hard at work pushing a barge laden with goods towards the port.

Midsummer Night: 1876

Nightfall Down the Thames

November Afternoon Stapleton Park: 1877

November Moonlight

October Gold: 1889

Roundhaylake, From Castle: 1893

Salthouse Dock Liverpool

The cities of northern Britain were greatly inspiring to the Victorian painter of moonlight, John Atkinson Grimshaw whose views of Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Scarborough and Liverpool capture the spirit of the glory days of industrialization. No city held him in thrall for longer than Liverpool and it was widely recognized by his contemporaries that the paintings were not merely topographical or architectural, but were homage to the majesty of Britain's industrial advance and achievement.

'The work of Atkinson Grimshaw is valuable and unique in several respects. He made a great popular success out of that amalgam of Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, nature and industry that dominated the culture of northern England in the later nineteenth century. His work is our only visual equivalent to the great epics of industrial change, the novels of Gaskell and Dickens.'

Liverpool was a very popular subject with Grimshaw's patrons and he painted various views including Salt house Docks on a number of occasions. One version was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1885 and received high acclaim in the Art Journal which declared that the artist,'...invests the subject with something akin to poetry'. This poetry stems from Grimshaw's ability to prompt the viewer's imagination. The line of masts stand proud against the evening glow evoking a sense of trade, travel and Britain's role in the wider world. The glow of gaslight illuminates the characters, the well dressed patrons who frequent the parade boutiques, the workmen and dockers and the street urchins. The overall atmosphere is ambiguous; but sinister or tantalizing it is undoubtedly fascinating.

Sixty Years Ago

One of the most enduring subjects created by Atkinson Grimshaw is the suburban lane with its high walls, trees, a partly hidden mansion and a single figure, usually female, walking along a leaf strewn road.

The compositional motif was first created in the early 1870's when Grimshaw and his family had moved to Knostrop Hall, a seventeenth century manor house by the River Aire on the eastern edge of Leeds. The romantic in Grimshaw responded readily to such surroundings; his own fascination with poetry and legend can be seen in the naming of his children after characters from Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

The desire to conjure up a wistful nostalgia for the past seems to be the motivating force in paintings such as 'Sixty Years Ago'. The composition is on a grand scale, comparable to paintings of the Thames and Leeds Bridge. The detail is quite remarkable with reflections showing in the puddle lane, a mass of intricate tracery silhouetted against the winter sky, the elegant female figure stepping warily across the muddy roadway, the whole scene bathed in a sharp clear light. What Grimshaw achieves is a fine sense of atmosphere, poetry, and mood made up of a very simple components; the enduring fascination of such paintings is their apparent simplicity creating a view back in time, to a golden age that never was.

Snowbound: 1883

Spirit of the Night: 1879

Stapleton Park near Pontefract: 1882

The Cradle Song: 1878

The Cradle Song (Detail): 1878

The present picture is one of only six known interior paintings by Grimshaw, all of which betray the influence of Tissot on the artist. Four of them, Dulce Domum, which was sold in these rooms, 12 June 1992 for $159,500, Spring, Summer, and In the Artist's House, sold at Sotheby's New York, 7 May 1998, for $310,000, were painted at Knostrop Old Hall, the house just outside Leeds to where Grimshaw had moved in 1870, and where he was to remain until his death in 1873. A further interior 'A Chorale' was painted at Grimshaw's 'Castle-by-the -sea' in Scarborough, where he rented a house for the sake of his children's health.

Knostrop, its gardens and surrounding countryside, were to supply Grimshaw with constant inspiration, and he was to devote much time and energy to beautifying the house. In addition to installing tiles, sculpture reliefs, stained-glass windows, and he also built a studio, and it is possible that this room is depicted here. The interior with its blue and white china vases, Japanese fans, and Persian carpet is typical of the aesthetic taste of the 1870's, and demonstrates Grimshaw's connoisseurship as a collector. The sitter is thought to be Agnes Leefe, the artist's model and studio assistant who lived with the family.

The Heron's Haunt: 1874

Grimshaw was at his height in the 1870's. In 1874 he first exhibited at the RA and the dealer William Agnew began to buy his works. In 1872 the House of Commons commissioned him to paint four views of the Roundhay Estate, in consideration of the Leeds Corporation Improvement Bill that proposed to turn this estate into a Public Park. The early 1870's saw the development of the moonlight paintings with their amazing lighting effects, justly famous to this day. They reflected the literary atmosphere of the day and caught the mood of the late Victorians and there is little doubt that Grimshaw was influenced by writers such as Wordsworth, Browning and Shelley and particularly Tennyson.

Haunt of the Heron is believed to be Red Pike in Cumberland.

Grimshaw used a number of unusual painting effects, including mixing sand with his paints. He used photography extensively to 'capture' scenes.

The Lighthouse At Scarborough: 1877

The Lotus Gatherers: 1874

John Atkinson Grimshaw became the tenant of Knostrop Hall in 1870. The eerie beauty of the 17 th century manor is replicated in some of his most famous images, in which a figure advances towards a house at dusk.

It seems a fitting backdrop for this picture, inspired by Tennyson's poem 'The Lotus Eaters'. The poem was included in the two volume edition of Poems (1842) that assured his immortality within the canon of English Literature.

The lotus eaters inhabit a 'land where all things always seem the same'. Sailors who chance upon these shores and partake of the lotus leaves remained enchanted, lulled into a sleepy stasis and trapped forever in the beautiful realm.

The Lotos-Eaters
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Lovers

Grimshaw's paintings are never simply deserted landscapes devoid of humanity and almost without exception; he suggested the animation of human activity, whether it be the illumination of a window suggesting a resident within or a figure wandering along the pavement. 'Lovers at the Gate', is even more enlivened as the mysterious young lady who often features in Grimshaw's work, is accompanied by a young gentleman for a lover's tryst. The romantic subject adds a charm to the typically beautiful Grimshaw image, of the gates of a large suburban house where leafless trees are set against the malachite of an evening sky. The starry sky completes the romance and we can easily concur that the two lovers are returning from a walk beneath the stars, perhaps to their home or to what they wish were their home. A similarly touching romantic scene is Home Again which depicts a sailor at the docks embracing his beloved on his return home. Under the Moonbeams of 1882 (Collection of Mr Harry C. Hagerty) depicts a similar tryst in which the lovers are punting on a lake in the foreground. Unlike Lovers at the Gate, the figures in Under the Moonbeams are dressed in Eighteenth Century costume and set before a more imposing manor house. The mood of the 1882 picture is far more grandiose, whereas Lovers at the Gate depicts a more touching and intimate moment of anecdotal harmony.

Although Grimshaw would not immediately be thought of as a figurative painter and his figures are usually small and secondary to the majesty of the landscape, they are usually there all the same, somewhere in the composition. They are included to add a further dimension to the landscape painting, often suggesting an enigmatic question or posing a problem for the spectator, thus drawing them in to create a narrative to explain their inclusion. In such pictures as the inclusion of the female pedestrian provokes queries as to her identity, her destination and her origins. In a series of unusual paintings by Grimshaw, he approached narrative and romance in a much less subtle manner, including winged fairies and medieval heroines in images such as Iris (Leeds City Art Gallery) and Elaine (collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber). In these paintings the figure was given far more importance and the landscape a secondary note of beauty. 'Lovers at the Gate' presents the landscape as the subject and unlike Elaine and Iris, the balance between the enigma of the figures and the mystery and romance suggested by landscape, is far more harmonious.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington

The Old Hall Under Moonlight: 1882

The Thames Below London Bridge: 1884

The Turn of the Road: 1883

Twilight - The Vegetable Garden: 1869

'Twilight' is a relatively early work by Grimshaw, painted when his work was closest to John Ruskin's theories of 'truth to nature'. In the late 1860's Grimshaw had emerged as an artist of great skill and had begun to paint sophisticated studies of light and landscape, preceding the nocturnes which he painted through the 1870's and 1880's. Twilight was painted only two years after Grimshaw's great Pre-Raphaelite painting 'Ghyll Beck, Barden, Yorkshire, Early Spring' (private collection) and the contemporary 'Whitby Harbour By Moonlight' (private collection) his first night time scene. A similar painting is 'Sunset from Chilworth Common, Hampshire' of 1868 (Owen Edgar Gallery) with its Turneresque blaze of setting sunlight.

The subject is the approach to an isolated farmer's cottage, the dirt lane winding towards the small dwelling and passing the resident working in a field of vegetables. The farmer's presence is a small and overpowered element in a celebration of the glory and drama of nature, but is a very relevant part of the painting creating the crux around which nature unveils her beauty. As Alexander Robertson has pointed out; 'Grimshaw frequently includes some element of toil both in his landscapes and townscapes, and hard work is made to seem part of an overall, natural social balance.' Twilight is romantic because of the sense of repose which evening brings, yet it also contains a scene of labor - work in the fields, presented as part of the unchanging order. In Mary Barton Mrs. Gaskell gives a townsman's view of the country: 'Here in their seasons may be seen the country business of hay-making, ploughing etc., which are such pleasant mysteries for townspeople to watch.' This emphasis on mysteries reinforces the view that contemporaries felt alienated by their new industrial surroundings, and by the disappearance of the rural way of life. Grimshaw was often to reflect this sense of loss in his paintings.'

'Twilight' is rich with Pre-Raphaelite color and detail and anticipates the later nocturnes with its bold and sophisticated depiction of evening light. The theme of agricultural toil and decaying time adds to the poignancy of the image and connects the painting with relevant movements in literature and art of the time.

Two Thousand Years Ago: 1878

Demonstrating another facet of Grimshaw's oeuvre, this picture is one of a series in which Grimshaw attempts to emulate the evocations of the ancient world painted by Alma-Tadema. The composition owes a clear debt to Alma-Tadema's Catullus reading his poems at Lesbia's house, which was executed in 1870 and exhibited at the International Exhibition in London of 1871. Although Grimshaw painted his picture eight years later in 1879 the disposition of table and couch set before two pillars is identical, and the landscape beyond, particularly in the placement of the pedimented temple porticos, is replicated to an almost exact degree. The costume of the two protagonists has perhaps inevitably been changed to counter charges of plagiarism, and the male poet is seated, but in both pictures the male arm is outstretched in declamatory mode, while the female figure reclines with her elbow on a cushion.

Under the Harvest Moon: 1872

This is a rare composition, where the artist has responded to the landscape before him with great sensitivity. In his early career, Grimshaw painted views, notably in the Lake District, with Pre-Raphaelite intensity and attention to detail. Later, in the 1860's, he enjoyed the friendship of John Linnell. Linnell was the son-in-law of Samuel Palmer, and some of Palmer's, and Linnell's ideas undoubtedly influenced the younger artist, especially after works by Linnell were shown at the Leeds Infirmary in 1868.

'Under the Harvest Moon' seems imbued with the spirit of English Romanticism. It is an early essay in the 'nocturnes that made Grimshaw famous. The effect of moonlight, on the hanging wood in the distance, the top of the cart laden with hay, and the gently meandering farm track, is expressed with great poetry. As opposed to later suburban lane scenes, which were often repeated, the artist has carefully considered each element of the composition and there is nothing formulaic in his rendition.

Dated 1872, the picture stands firmly within the decade where Grimshaw saw his career take wing. He moved to Knostrop Old Hall, outside Leeds, and started to be promoted by Thomas Agnew & Sons, who also had branches in the commercial centers of Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, where his work found a ready market.

View of Heath Street by Night: 1882

To date, six pictures of Heath Street by Grimshaw have emerged: one, entitled 'View of Heath Street by Night', is in Tate Britain. The series dates to when Grimshaw took a studio in Manresa Road, Chelsea, which enabled him to have greater access to London subjects. The upper part of Heath Street was one of the original lanes leading into the village of Hampstead. It was lengthened in the 1887-1889 Hampstead Town Improvements scheme to link it with the new Fitzjohn's Avenue.

View of Heath Street by Night: 1882

Grimshaw lived in Leeds, and was self taught as an artist. He painted landscapes and towns, at first mostly in the north of England. Later he often worked in London, and had a studio in Chelsea in 1885-7. His early paintings are detailed Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, sunny and green. He then deliberately specialized in twilight or moonlight, with dark pictures of streets and docks, often with pavements shiny with rain. Although Grimshaw was not a friend of Whistler, he knew him and developed in a personal way Whistler's theme of towns at night.

(From the Tate Museum Caption August 2004)

Wharfedale: 1872

'Wharfedale' provided early inspiration for Grimshaw and he returned to the area on a number of occasions working in oil and watercolor. These works provide evidence of Grimshaw's enthusiasm for the natural world as well as his consummate ability to convey it. Grimshaw began to paint and develop moonlit scenes from the late 1860's; the present work shows that by 1872 he was master of the subject. As in many of his works we witness a scene following a heavy downpour; the surface water reflects the moon producing light sources throughout the composition. This not only illuminates perspective but imbues the work with an atmospheric harmony.

The lone figure carries a pail suggesting a sense of toil and hardship yet they pause from their labor for a moment, drinking in the magnificent landscape as the moonlight catches the river on the floodplain below. The valley is portrayed with a skillful economy as the line between horizon and sky is left blended and undefined. These contrasts to the foreground which is rendered with meticulous detail; the ruts and branches brilliantly silhouetted against the night sky are akin to the Pre-Raphaelite ideals of landscape painting. The leafless trees suggest it is Autumn which along with the laborer produces a strong feeling of the rural and agricultural cycle rooted in the pastoral tradition.

Whitby Docks: 1876

Whitby From Scotch Head: 1879

In the late 1860's Grimshaw became increasingly interested in painting ships and the sea. On the one hand he focused on the great ports of London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Hull and on the other; he captured the more intimate harbors of the east side of the harbor with Whitby Abbey dominating the sky line. In 1867 Grimshaw painted what is arguably the first of his moonlit harbor scenes, 'Whitby Harbour by Moonlight' (private collection) and from the end of the 1860's, the fishing town was to become a frequently recurring subject.

Despite rarely exhibiting these views, Grimshaw's paintings of Whitby were immediately popular with collectors and quickly snapped up directly from the artist's studio. It was the mechanism of the port and the role in the life of the city which fascinated Grimshaw and explains why in all his paintings he always includes various signs of activity, such as the nonchalant figures of dock workers in the foreground of the present picture. The lights of the buildings twinkling in the night and reflecting in the still waters of the dock, further suggest signs of life amid the silent streets skirting the dock.

Grimshaw's depiction of the port is full of painstaking detail and he clearly celebrates its industrial role as one of the most active fishing ports of northern Britain. Rather than concentrating on the smoke and dirt of a busy port he chooses a moonlit view and presents a beautifully detailed image. Pictures such as this appealed directly to the Victorian public's pride in their industrial achievements and explains Grimshaw's immense success as an artist.

The contrast of shadows and moonlight in the present picture is typical of Grimshaw's oeuvre during the second half of his career. The artificial brightness of the light together with the blackness of the boats in the foreground recall characteristics of collotype photography that developed in the late 18th century and which Grimshaw, as an artist, would have undoubtedly been aware of. Like James Tissot he was also fascinated by the intricacies of ship rigging and as the masts and ropes of the ship exemplify he devoted great attention to these specific details.

A Mossy Glen: 1864

Ghyll Beck, Barden Yorkshire, Early Spring: 1867

Under the Hollies, Roundhay Park, Leeds: 1872

Boar Lane, Leeds: 1881

The present work is one of three versions of this subject painted by the artist. It has been described as 'one of Grimshaw's most lovingly painted street scenes, not only in the suggestion of night-time atmosphere, but also in the way the light from shop windows is reflected on the wet pavement and cobbles.' A third version has been acquired recently by Leeds City Art Gallery. In 1867, the south side of Boar Lane was demolished and rebuilt to allow for the widening of the road. On the north side, the church of Holy Trinity is seen set back from the road; the church was built in 1727 though the tower was rebuilt in 1839.

Full Moon behind Cirrus Cloud from Roundhay Park Castle Battlements: 1872

In 1870 Grimshaw moved to Knostrop Old Hall, just outside Leeds. The Leeds Corporation had recently bought a nearby estate called Roundhay Park and the town council was eager to promote a bill in Parliament to open the estate as a public park. As a result Grimshaw was requested to produce three paintings which would be used to illustrate the park's appearance to the Parliamentary Committee. The artist chose to depict three moonlit scenes, which had by then become synonymous with his name. One of the three paintings, Full Moon behind Cirrus Cloud from the Roundhay Park Castle Battlements, 1872, similar to the present picture, was singled out for comment by the Leeds Mercury: `...the lake is seen from the ivy-fringed battlement of the ruined tower, and appears in the deceptive haze to stretch unbroken to the horizon; the interlocking boughs of the near trees, in their winter nakedness, being carefully painted; while the more distant clumps are broadly massed in purple shadow".

In Peril: 1879
(aka Harbor Flare)

This painting, from a series of three, is one of the most dramatic explorations of the combination of moonlight and firelight in Grimshaw's oeuvre. Its subject is the harbor flare, lit to guide ships back to port on stormy nights, between which and the spume of the wave to the right the animated figures appear as staffage. The picture relates directly to Burning Off, a shipping boat at Scarborough and In Peril are almost identical compositions. The present picture is the last of the trio in private hands. The subject may have been the result of a convergence of influences. Shortly after the Grimshaw family moved to Scarborough in 1876, to rent the house known as 'The Castle by the Sea', they witnessed the spectacular conflagration of Sir Joseph Paxton's Saloon of the Scarborough Spa. Grimshaw commemorated the event with Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: The Burning of the Spa Saloon, emulating Turner's The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, of 1834 (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The painting may have been commissioned by Thomas Jarvis, the wealthy Scarborough brewer who built 'The Castle by the Sea', and who acted as Grimshaw's most important patron at this date. It is Jarvis who is generally credited with turning Grimshaw's work in a new direction and encouraging the artist to paint more moonlight scenes. This development found parallel in the work of Whistler, American born, but Paris trained, whose Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit) became the subject of the famous libel case involving Ruskin, after it had been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery of 1877. Whistler himself later acknowledged the connection (the pair were briefly neighbors in Chelsea in the 1880's), reputedly uttering: 'I thought myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures'. Though now principally famous for these moonlit scenes, Grimshaw's career followed a remarkable progression. Born the son of a policeman, he found initial employment as a railway clerk until his marriage to his cousin, Theodosia Hubbard, who was also a cousin of the artist Thomas Sidney Cooper. Theodosia encouraged her husband's artistic ambitions, and in 1861 he retired from the Great Northern Railway and started exhibiting still lives and landscapes. A tour of the Lake District in 1868 resulted in pictures of startling Pre-Raphaelite detail, while their move to Knostrop Old Hall, near Leeds, in 1870 encouraged works in more autumnal hues. Later in his career he found inspiration in depicting the ports of Whitby, Glasgow and London. Inventive in his technique he was one of the first artists to use photography to his own ends, and in some of his canvases, sand can be seen to be mixed with pigment to achieve the textures he desired. Although he rarely exhibited at the Royal Academy or the Grosvenor Gallery his work was much in demand from patrons and dealers in the north of England and can still be found in many collections there.

Il Pensoroso: 1875



In the Pleasaunce


'Must paint Fanny in the garden' wrote Grimshaw in one of his sketchbooks. The result is this unusual and felicitous picture, where the artist's wife, Frances Theodosia, dressed in 18th Century costume, is shown seated on a Coalbrookdale bench, shaded by an Oriental umbrella. The garden is that of Knostrop Old Hall, a 17th Century gabled manor house two miles to the east of Leeds, to which the artist moved in 1870.

Born the son of a policeman and self-taught as an artist, Grimshaw was justifiably proud of the house his success had enabled him to acquire. He celebrated his good fortune in a series of paintings of Knostrop's garden and interior, many of which, like the present example, were executed in 1875. Spring and Summer also show Fanny dressed in 18th Century costume in interiors crammed with aesthetic bric-à-brac. The pictures are a celebration of light and color and are a radical departure from the lane scenes for which Grimshaw had become famous. Il Penseroso shows Fanny in a conservatory surrounded by exotic plants and owes a clear debt to Tissot, as does a yet undiscovered work from 1876: the reviewer of the Yorkshire Post went so far as to state A Question of Color 'might have been conceived and painted by Tissot'. As a frequent visitor to his friend's house in St John's Wood, Grimshaw was keenly aware of the financial rewards that Tissot enjoyed with his pictures of fashionably dressed women residing in sumptuous interiors. Grimshaw felt he might profitably emulate him: as ever the direction of his work was influenced not only by his own personal preferences but by the proven commercial success of other artists.

The highlight of Grimshaw's series is 'Dulce Domum', started in 1876 but not completed until 1885. A technical tour-de-force arguably on a par with Tissot's virtuoso performances, it depicts the dining room at Knostrop, where the artist's daughter Enid, named from Tennyson's Idylls of the King, is seated listening to music, perhaps composed by her brother Arthur. The room is filled with Japanese fans, Chinese pots brimming with flowers and peacock feathers, a statue, embroidery and ebony furniture - all bearing witness to the artist's 'aesthetic' taste. Indeed the painting has come to be seen as a microcosm of the Aesthetic movement.


In Roman mythology, Dido was queen of Carthage, also called Elissa. She was the daughter of a king of Tyre. After her brother Pygmalion murdered her husband, she fled to Libya, where she founded and ruled Carthage. According to one legend, Dido threw herself on a burning pyre to escape marriage to the king of Libya. In the Aeneid, Vergil tells how she fell in love with Aeneas, who had been shipwrecked at Carthage, and destroyed herself on the pyre when, at Jupiter's command, he left to continue his journey to Italy.

A You Tube Review of John Atkinson Grimshaw

Source: Art Renewal Center

Source: Atkinson Grimshaw Online

This page is the work of Senex Magister

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