This week’s quest for the roots and branches of Symbolism takes me to another painter who specialised in scenes captured at night or in low light: John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893). Now praised by experts in British art during the nineteenth century, Grimshaw was complimented by none other than James McNeill Whistler, who nicknamed him Grimmy, saying “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.”
Grimshaw was born into a working class family living in Leeds, in 1836. He became a clerk in the local railway, and married Frances, known as Fanny, when he was twenty. In 1861, he decided to become a professional artist, and from then until his death devoted his time to painting.
Although Grimshaw started painting flowers and other still lifes in the early 1860s, he seems to have switched to landscapes such as this fine view of Lake Windermere from 1863. Seen here either at first or last light, it proved a portent of things to come. It also shows great attention to detail in the way that would be expected of a Pre-Raphaelite landscape, although there’s no evidence that Grimshaw ever had contact with other artists in that movement.
By 1866, he was making sufficient income from selling his works to the upper middle classes that he moved his family to a semi-detached house, then in 1870 to a grander residence known as Knostrop Hall, still in Leeds, Yorkshire.
He appears to have become increasingly successful with his skilful and finely detailed depictions of Victorian life, as in his Lovers in a Wood from 1873.
Although he was never a true narrative artist, during the 1870s he painted scenes drawn from contemporary literature. His Lady of Shalott from about 1875 refers to Tennyson’s poem, and shows the Lady’s death as she drifts in her boat slowly down the river towards Camelot, a scene painted by other artists of the day including Walter Crane (1862) and Arthur Hughes (c 1872-73).
Il Penseroso from 1875 refers to a poem by John Milton from around 1645, intended as a complement to his L’Allegro. Meaning the Serious Man, Grimshaw changes its gender to use his wife Fanny as his model, setting her in a very Victorian conservatory, surrounded by exotic plants and flowers.
Grimshaw borrowed freely from his contemporaries. Two Thousand Years Ago from 1878 shows a courting couple in classical times, and appears to have been influenced by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
During the 1870s, Grimshaw discovered a new market for paintings made at night (nocturnes), or in twilight. At The Park Gate (1878) shows a lonely figure just entering the grounds surrounding a large house, in cold and wet English winter weather.
Grimshaw painted on his travels, mainly around northern England. His very unusual nocturne of the harbour of the seaside resort of Whitby (1878), on the coast of North Yorkshire, captures the reflected moonlight particularly well. The artist has also added fine outlines to help the viewer discern the form of buildings and other features in the view, which give it a strange and ghostly tone.
The following year, Grimshaw painted a rather different view of Whitby from Scotch Head, Moonlight on the Esk (1879), this time without the ghostly outlines.
November from 1879 uses the same formula of At The Park Gate, with a single figure walking away down a wet and muddy road this time outside the walls of the large house in the distance.
Grimshaw tried adding a bit more of a story in his In Peril, also from 1879. This shows members of the families of fishermen tending a beacon by the harbour entrance as they wait for their husbands, fathers and sons to return, as the wind and sea are building and making their safe return more difficult.