A serenade to art’s master of Yorkshire moonlight

Park Row, Leeds, 1882 by John Atkinson Grimshaw. (Leeds Museums and Galleries)
Park Row, Leeds, 1882 by John Atkinson Grimshaw. (Leeds Museums and Galleries)
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John Atkinson Grimshaw’s acclaimed career as a Victorian painter of poetic, moody, moonlit pictures nearly didn’t happen.

His parents had quietly shepherded him into a steady job as a pen pushing clerk with the Great Northern Railway Company. They might have assumed he would remain there for life yet, to their horror, he left that cosy career to become an artist at the age of 24.

Fortunately, it was a worthwhile gamble, a fact underlined when celebrated artist James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) later said: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.”

Like countless Victorian artists who fell out of fashion for much of the 20th century, Grimshaw’s work has enjoyed a spontaneous surge of interest. His unmistakeable canvases, when they appear in the top auction houses – now a very rare occurrence – can command prices of £250,000 and above.

Born in Leeds on September 6 1836, the son of David Grimshaw, a policeman, John Atkinson Grimshaw lived at 9 Back Park Street until the age of six when his family moved to Norwich, returning to Leeds in 1848.

His father then ran a grocer’s shop in Brunswick Row.

In 1858 Grimshaw married his cousin Theodosia Hubbarde, the daughter of a journalist, James Hubbarde, editor of The Hampshire Advertiser, and the couple settled in Wortley. Greatly encouraged by his wife to paint, he did so in his spare time, and sold pictures via a Leeds bookseller, a Mr Fenteman.

These early works mostly depict birds, fruit and blossoms, ferns and foliage. Further early details are scarce as he left no letters, journals, or papers, but in 1861 he became a professional painter.

He was clearly influenced by the Pre Raphaelites – Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais – matching their eye for accurate yet bright colour, lighting, vivid detail and realism. He sold pictures for around £10 each, leading to him moving, in 1864, to a property in Woodhouse Ridge. But from 1870 Grimshaw worked in a rented 17th century Leeds mansion, Knostrop Hall, built by Adam Bayes, the first MP of Leeds.

Amongst Grimshaw’s subjects in the ensuing decade were moonlit Yorkshire scenes, and in many of these he developed a skill to capture seasons or weather. Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park, Leeds is a good example.

The 1870s were especially noted for his conversion to Catholicism (1870) even though his parents were Baptists; exhibits at the Royal Academy (from 1874); designing a house, named Castle-by-the-Sea, built in Scarborough (1875); and a financial disaster (1879), the details of which remain nebulous, but which put him in debt for the remainder of his life. It also led to him abandoning the Scarborough property.

During the following decade many of his trademark pictures were executed – misty, wet street scenes and grimy docks in the capital, Liverpool, Leeds and Hull. A number of his typical nocturnal works feature Leeds streets, amongst them Boar Lane and Park Row.

Philip J. Waller, in Town, City, and Nation (1983) aptly commented: “His paintings of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene.”’

In the rain and mist, the puddles and smoky fog of late Victorian industrial England there was also a hint of foreboding.

He also found time to paint interiors, imagined scenes from the Greek and Roman empires, literary subjects from Longfellow and Tennyson, and the occasional fairy painting.

In the 1880s, Grimshaw maintained a studio in Chelsea, close to that of Whistler. Grimshaw’s daughter, Elaine Philips, recorded that her father helped Whistler with perspective. She also said that Whistler teased Grimshaw for his industry as he always spent six days a week at his easel.

Although both artists sometimes chose similar subjects, Whistler’s work was more impressionistic than Grimshaw’s, who worked in a more sharply focused, almost photographic vein. In fact this was a criticism often levelled at his work. One critic observed that his pictures “showed no marks of handling or brushwork, and not a few artists were doubtful whether they could be accepted as paintings at all” .

Another came to his rescue, stating that photography and painting “achieved their closet fusion in this artist, and the landscape tradition is none the poorer for the fact”.

Grimshaw died of cancer at Knostrop on October 13 1893 and was buried in Woodhouse Cemetery (now St George’s Fields).

The latter half of the 20th century saw his work reappraised and the subject of a number of exhibitions.

Noted authority on Victorian painting Christopher Wood has said: “Grimshaw is one of those uniquely English, isolated 
figures like L.S. Lowry, whose work fits no categories but their own.’

Although Grimshaw’s first three children died young, several others, Arthur (1864–1913), Louis (1870–1944), Wilfred (1871–1937) and Elaine (1877–1970) became painters.