John Atkinson Grimshaw
He was an artist from the Victorian era whose skill at painting bordered upon nearly photographic representations; where the realism and the details he captured brought his moonlit scenes a quality rarely found in a painting. He is best known for his cityscapes and landscapes, both of which were mainly twilight, dawn and night scenes. This incredibly talented man, named John Atkinson Grimshaw, was born on September 6, 1836, in the city of Leeds, in England and he did not begin his art career in earnest until he was 24 years old.
He and his cousin Frances Hubbard were married in 1856, when he was barely 20 and she was 21 years old. He worked in a railway company called the Great Northern Railway as a clerk until he was 24 years old, when he quit to begin his life as an artist. His parents were very concerned at his sudden change in career, and they may have had doubts; but they needn’t have. Grimshaw was asked to make paintings of nature and small wildlife for the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, which he exhibited in 1862. It took him just a few years to reap the benefits of his talent and in the 1870’s he was considered very successful, even to the point where he could afford to rent a second home. He had many children, of which four (Arthur, Louis, Wilfred and Elaine) inherited his gift and became painters like their father.
In the 1870s Grimshaw had also shifted to painting more interior scenes, most likely under the influence of the works by James Tissot, who was following the Aesthetic Movement. He painted Summer which was the portrait of a young Victorian woman as she peered out of a sunny window. Although she takes much of the attention, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to all the details in not only the main room, but those in a secondary room beyond an open doorway. His Dulce Domum was also an interior scene, but a much earlier one, painted in 1855. He wrote on the back of this portrait that it had been painted under difficult circumstances, yet he managed to perfectly capture the richly decorated music room and the girl sitting quietly there.
His style was obviously influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, taking from them their techniques of precise detail, realism, use of lighting and accuracy of color. He was a master of the seasons and of the weather, being able to capture the misty haze around streetlamps and even the dampness on the clothing of his figures as they stood shivering in the early morning scenes. In the 1880s his studio was not far from James Abbott O’Neil Whistler’s workshop in Chelsea, London, and as a contemporary they became known to each other under friendly terms. Whistler was also an artist of skill with night scenes, though his were drawn from Impressionism, and he complimented Grimshaw’s nocturnes by saying that he had thought himself to be the “Inventor of Nocturnes” until he has seen Grimshaw’s night scene paintings.
Grimshaw’s most masterful work is considered by most to be his painting called On Hampstead Hill, which he demonstrated his skill of using several light sources to capture the essence of the moments that come between twilight and nighttime. His other night time scenes of the city were mainly focused on their beauty, rather than the dirtiness or litter that may have been in evidence there. Many of his favorite scenes were those of the docks of Leeds, London, Scarborough and Glasgow. In his later years Grimshaw expanded his themes to include historical Greek and Roman scenes as well as literary subjects in his works, often painting characters from his favorite books by authors Tennyson and Longfellow.
John Atkinson Grimshaw signed his paintings differently throughout his career: JAG, J. A. Grimshaw, John Atkinson Grimshaw and Atkinson Grimshaw. Somehow Grimshaw neglected to leave more details about his life and his craft in letters or writings, and so we are left mainly with his wonderfully imaginative and creative paintings to tell his story. He lived the end of his life in Leeds, in the city where he was born, passing away on October 13, 1893, just short of his 57th birthday. He has not been forgotten, and hopefully never will be; in the galleries in London and Harrogate they have very recently had a retrospective of his works called Atkinson Grimshaw - Painter of Moonlight.