Today I am featuring some works by the English Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw, who was born in Leeds in 1836. His father, David, at various times during his life, served as a policeman, worked for Pickfords and then as a Great Northern Railway worker in Leeds. His mother was Mary Grimshaw née Atkinson. John Atkinson Grimshaw was the eldest of six children. He and his siblings were brought up in a very religious household with both his parents being strict Baptists. He left school at the age of sixteen and became a clerk at the Great Northern Railway headquarters in Leeds. It was whilst working and living in Leeds that he was able to visit one of the many art galleries and see the works of some of the Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Holman Hunt and Henry Wallis. He also loved and was influenced by the works of the Leeds-born Pre-Raphaelite landscape artist John William Inchbold. While he was employed as a clerk much of Atkinson’s free time was taken up by his love of art. He was a self-taught artist who received no formal training.
In 1857 Atkinson Grimshaw married his cousin Frances Theodosia Hubbard and the couple went on to have twelve children although sadly only six survived to be become teenagers. Of those who survived, many went on to become artists like their father. In 1861, much to his parents’ horror Grimshaw, gave up his work at the railway company and decided to become a professional artist. He first exhibited som of his art work in 1862 and at this time he had concentrated on still life works depicting fruit and blossom and some paintings of birds. He also managed to gain his first commissions from the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Over time, Grimshaw developed his own highly individual style, and subject matter. He became a talented painter of autumnal scenes and also works which depicted twilight and night time scenes, lit by moonlight reflected on the wet cobbled streets, sometimes depicting horse-drawn traffic and handsome cabs. These were known as his “moonlights”. His paintings would often depict street scenes swathed in fog and smog from pollution that so often enveloped cities and towns at that time.
He also painted many nocturnal harbour and dockyard scenes with the spiky outlines of the ships’ masts rearing up against a darkening sky. Examples of this type of work can be seen in his paintings such as Liverpool from Wapping (1875), Nightfall down the Thames (1880), Shipping on the Clyde (1881), The Thames by Moonlight (1884), Liverpool Quay by Moonlight (1887) and Prince’s Dock, Hull (1887). Grimshaw’s works were more varied than just this as he painted many portraits, fairy pictures, and the most elaborate pictures of attractively dressed young women in opulent interiors. During his early period he signed his paintings “J.A. Grimshaw” or “JAG” but in 1867 Grimshaw dropped his first name, John, and from then on signed his works “Atkinson Grimshaw”.
Atkinson Grimshaw always considered himself to be a Northerner, a Yorkshire man and Leeds, for most of his life, remained his base. Grimshaw rarely travelled to London although he did set up a studio and live there for a short time in the mid 1880’s, and it was during this time he became friends with James McNeil Whistler. His reputation as an artist was further enhanced when one of his paintings was accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy. However the fact that over the years, he only ever submitted five of his paintings to the Royal Academy probably meant that he set little store by what the RA could do for him and he knew he had numerous northern business men queuing up to buy his work. Over time, he slowly built up a large clientele for his work, including some London art dealers, especially the William Agnew Gallery, and with this artistic success came wealth, so much so that in 1870 he was able to move his family into Knostrop Hall on the outskirts of the city.
Knostrop Hall was a magnificent 17th century stone-built manor house, which featured in many of his paintings. He also had a house in Scarborough for use in the summer. He called it Castle-by-the-sea.
Atkinson Grimshaw died of cancer in October 1893 at Knostrop Old Hall, and was buried in Woodhouse cemetery in Leeds. He was especially appreciated by middle-class clients, many of whom were northern industrialists. Grimshaw’s dock scenes of Liverpool, Hull and Glasgow, and the manor houses seen at the end of leafy, stone-walled suburban lanes, along which a single figure walks, were especially popular.
Atkinson Grimshaw had campaigned for a number of years for the building of Leeds City Art Gallery. After much wrangling and a prolonged struggle with the authorities the Leeds Art Gallery opened in October 1888 and was financed by public subscription, collected in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. The artist Hubert Herkomer formally opened the building, and presented an example of his work to the collection. The Gallery mounted annual spring exhibitions in which Grimshaw always put forward works for inclusion.
Atkinson Grimshaw had a unique style and is remembered as one of the minor Victorian masters and his place in art history will be assured by his depiction of Victorian life and his haunting moonlight which became his trademark.
Having said that, there was an element of controversy about his work. As I said at the start of his biography, Atkinson had not received any formal artistic tuition, got married at the age of twenty-one and four years later despite now being a family man, had given up his job as a railway clerk to become a professional artist. He had now to make money from his art work and to do this had to reach a level of artistic competence which would guarantee that his work would sell. So how did he achieve such a feat? John Ruskin, the art critic had recommended that artists should paint directly from nature but to do this one had to have had some training in draughtsmanship and perspective and so Atkinson Grimshaw in a way decided to “cheat”. He discovered that by projecting a photograph or a lantern slide on to a blank canvas he was able to produce an immediate composition. Then he would go over the outlines in pencil. Over which he would add colours and the end result was a glossy finish which had removed all traces of the pencilled outline. The finished landscapes and cityscapes sold well and for a time made him very wealthy. However despite his success, other artists who had studied and trained in traditional academic methods for years despised his productions and in one of Grimshaw’s obituary notices it was written:
“…[his pictures] excited considerable controversy among contemporary artists, not a few [of whom] were doubtful whether they could be accepted as paintings at all…”
To be fair to Grimshaw the technique he used would not have caused such controversy nowadays and the question remains, does the end justify the means? So let me finish with a kinder obituary notice which simply stated:
“…A Leeds artist of very great ability has passed away. He may be regarded as self-taught in all that gave character and distinction to his art. His methods, treatment and colouring were quite unlike anything in ordinary practice…”