John Atkinson Grimshaw



Artist's Biography & Works For Sale


English artist John Atkinson Grimshaw has come to be regarded as one of the most important painters of the Victorian era, and among the very finest exponents of moonlit and twilight scenes. His detailed lyricism lends a quiet beauty to what might otherwise be rather gloomy vistas – damp city streets and suburban lanes, the misty waterfront and tall ships moored at the docks, silhouetted against the dark sky – and his skilful handling of moonlight and lamplight, often glistening on cobblestones, adds an almost magical dimension to his paintings. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), with whom he became friends, is recorded as saying, “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures.”

Atkinson Grimshaw's other works include landscapes, fairy pictures, classical subjects (in the manner of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)), fashionable women and interiors (in the manner of James Tissot (1836-1902)), and scenes from the works of popular poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), John Keats (1795-1821), Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).

At the start of his career he was deeply influenced by the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900) – especially Ruskin’s exhortation to be true to nature – and he was inspired to emulate the hyper-realistic detail and vivid colours of the Pre-Raphaelites. Tate's website suggests that he might have become familiar with the paintings of Pre-Raphaelites Henry Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896) through viewing the private collections of Thomas Plint (1823-1861) and Ellen Heaton (1816-1894), who lived in his home city of Leeds. He would also have known the paintings of another Leeds resident, artist John William Inchbold (1830-1888), whose influence can clearly be seen in his early work. Atkinson Grimshaw is, however, best known for the paintings that he produced in such large numbers throughout the 1870s and 1880s – his serene evocations of northern towns, cities and dockyards bathed in the melancholy light of evening or the peaceful glow of the moon, and his poignant images of solitary figures walking along walled, tree-lined lanes.

Atkinson Grimshaw made considerable use of photography in his work, which resulted in some disparaging comments from critics, and also from fellow painters who favoured more traditional, academic ways of making art. When painting landscapes he often used photographs as an aide-memoire in place of a sketchbook (a common practice at the time). Leeds Art Gallery has in its collection an album of souvenir photographic views of the Lake District by Thomas Ogle (1813-1882) that was owned by Atkinson Grimshaw; some of these scenes can be fairly exactly matched to his paintings. He is also known to have over-painted photographs, transforming daytime views into night-time scenes for example. Some writers have commented that, in the early stages of his career, he probably relied on photographic techniques (including the projection of outline images on to his canvas) to compensate for his lack of formal artistic training and to achieve the absolute accuracy that he sought. His use of photography is also perhaps what helped him to develop his astonishing skills in the depiction of all kinds of light.

Atkinson Grimshaw's biographers have been presented with something of a challenge because the artist left behind very little documentary evidence of his life in the form of diaries, letters or other papers. He was born in Leeds in 1836, the son of Mary and David Grimshaw. His father is known to have been a policeman. When he was six years old the family moved to Norwich and his father started working for Pickfords, the haulage company. The young Atkinson Grimshaw attended King Edward VI Grammar School, one of the oldest educational establishments in England. A number of Norwich School painters had been pupils there, including John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), John Berney Crome (1794-1842), Edward Thomas Daniell (1804-1842), James Stark (1794-1859) and John Crome (1768-1821), who also taught drawing at the school for many years. The Pre-Raphaelite painter Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) was a pupil there too. Although Atkinson Grimshaw is usually regarded as a self-taught artist, several writers have pointed out that he probably learnt the fundamentals whilst he was at school in Norwich.

In 1848, the family moved back to Leeds to open a grocery business. Atkinson Grimshaw's father also began working for the Great Northern Railway. Before he left to pursue his artistic career (much to the chagrin of his parents), this was to be Atkinson Grimshaw's place of employment too, as a clerk in the railway offices. Little is known about the specific nature of his role – the word 'clerk' can of course mean any number of things – and it has even been suggested that this is where he might have learnt the techniques of photography that were to contribute so profitably to his artistic career.

At the age of 20, Atkinson Grimshaw married his cousin Frances Hubbard (1835-1917). (Her surname sometimes appears as Hubbarde.) They set up home in inner city Leeds – in the gasworks district of New Wortley – but a few years later, when Atkinson Grimshaw's paintings were beginning to sell, they were able to move out to the more pleasant suburb of Woodhouse Ridge. Leeds was, at this time, very much an industrial city and it's clear to see how this influenced Atkinson Grimshaw's aesthetic sensibilities. However, his early paintings and drawings more often feature birds, botanical subjects and the picturesque landscapes that he found on his travels around the north of England.

By the age of 25, he was working full-time as an artist, and over the next few years he began to establish a name for himself. He sold pictures in a number of exhibitions including, in 1869, a show at the Leeds Mechanics' Institute Picture Gallery. His paintings of northern towns and cities were becoming enormously popular with the region's wealthy industrialists (who were also keen to be seen patronising the arts) and by the 1870s he was making a comfortable living. His work was reaching the London market too, and he exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time in 1874. He was taken on by prestigious London fine art dealer Thomas Agnew & Sons and, later, by Arthur Tooth & Sons.

In 1870 Atkinson Grimshaw and his growing family moved to Knostrop Hall, a seventeenth century country house just outside Leeds. Also sometimes referred to as Knostrop Old Hall, it had the kind of historic interiors and ‘medieval’ ambience that inspired many of Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings at the time; and indeed, the building itself features in some of his pictures. (It was sadly demolished in 1960.) He and Frances had a large number of children – as many as sixteen, according to some sources. Tragically, all but five of them died at a very young age, three of them from diphtheria. This is perhaps what prompted Atkinson Grimshaw to relocate his family to the seaside town of Scarborough a few years later, with its healthier environment. From 1876, they rented a second home there, a spectacular clifftop residence aptly named the Castle-by-the-Sea (and which is now an upmarket guest house). 

Atkinson Grimshaw's reputation soared during this period. However, although the details are hazy, it seems that around 1880 the failure of a friend to repay a substantial loan plunged him into unexpected financial difficulties. He had to give up the Castle-by-the-Sea, and the family moved back to Knostrop Hall. He then decided to rent a studio for himself in London's Chelsea, perhaps so that he could focus on producing work for sale in order to haul himself out of the crisis. It appears that he was able to earn enough to cover what he had lost, and in 1885 he returned to live and work at Knostrop Hall. This is the period during which he produced some of his best-loved and most familiar pictures.

As several writers have commented, Atkinson Grimshaw knew he had hit on a successful 'formula' (if his beautiful paintings can be described in such terms). His daughter Emily, in a moving passage written in her journal towards the end of her father's life, described how the artist began experimenting with snow pictures... then “turned back to his moonlit wet lanes and streets, painting, painting, painting, all day, pictures to sell now and after he was gone.” Atkinson Grimshaw died in 1893 and was buried in the former Woodhouse Cemetery in Leeds (now known as St George's Fields, part of the University of Leeds). Four of his children – Arthur Edmund Grimshaw (1868-1913), Louis Hubbard Grimshaw (1870-1943/4?), Wilfred Atkinson Grimshaw (1871-1937) and Elaine Grimshaw (1877-1970) – also had careers as artists.

Most of Atkinson Grimshaw's paintings are in private hands. Public collections that hold his work include the Ashmolean Museum (University of Oxford), Bradford Museums and Galleries, City of London Corporation, Ferens Art Gallery (Kingston-upon-Hull), Harris Museum and Art Gallery (Preston), Kirklees Museums and Galleries, Laing Art Gallery (Newcastle-upon-Tyne), Leeds Art Gallery, The Mercer Art Gallery (Harrogate), Museum of Gloucester, National Trust, Scarborough Art Gallery, Shipley Art Gallery, The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery (University of Leeds), Tate Britain (London), Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Madrid), Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) and Whitby Museum.

 Early in his career, the artist signed his paintings “JAG”, “J A Grimshaw” or John Atkinson Grimshaw” but later pictures are consistently signed “Atkinson Grimshaw.”