Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Master of Moonlight: John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)

J.A. Grimshaw

“The work of Atkinson Grimshaw is valuable and unique in several respects. He made a great popular success out of that amalgam of Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, nature and industry that dominated the culture of northern England in the later nineteenth century. His work is our only visual equivalent to the great epics of industrial change’ (David Bromfield, Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-1893), exhibition catalogue, 1979-80 edition, p. 5.

Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887

A Painter’s Dream

The docks at Greenock, in the west of Scoltand, on the River Clyde was the subject of several compositions that J.A. Grimshaw painted and was a favorite location for depicting his night scenes. The industrial cities of Britain and their commercial growth became the source of immense inspiration for Grimshaw, as he celebrated the age of industry, commerce and conspicuous wealth. His use of a carriage, as in Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887, is another characteristic element in Grimshaw’s works acting as an aide to the viewer’s perspective along the orderly straight streets or the lonesome servant girl making her way home. 

 Grimshaw’s dock scenes were almost always depicted at night or with a fading light. In Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, the glow of the moon casts its hazy light coming in from above the painting. By setting the scene under this faded light, Grimshaw was able to show off his skill at depicting the effects of light; here we see the glow from the shop fronts as it literally bounces off the wet cobblestones outside. Grimshaw’s fascination with depicting night scenes follows an allure to painting moonlight scenes during the Romantic era.

 Caspar David Friedrich's Two Men Contemplating the Moon, (1819)

It should be mentioned that Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), who painted Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819), is perhaps one of the most well-known painters of this theme. The moon presented a magical and fantastical subject matter and was a source of great inspiration across the arts. For instance, Frederic Chopin composed Nocturne for Piano (1827-460) and Ludwig van Beethoven’s  Moonlight Sonata (1801).  However, one of the most notable painters of moonlight scenes, or ‘nocturnes’, was James Abbot McNeil Whistler, Grimshaw’s contemporary.  As a matter of fact, Grimshaw befriended Whistler whilst in London and it is believed that they possibly shared a studio, Whistler apparently described Grimshaw as an inventor of ‘nocturnes’ saying, ‘I considered myself  the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlight picture.’   

In his paintings of the docks, Grimshaw simultaneously created an image of a poetic and mysterious Victorian Britain, a testimonial snapshot of a great industrial age. His interest in photography also plays a part in this mystical vision, as does his Pre-Raphaelite precision that can be seen in his detailing.


Born in Leeds, in 1836, Grimshaw was the son of a policeman. His parents were strict Baptists and his mother strongly disapproved of his interest in paining and on one occasion she destroyed all his paints. He began working as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway in 1848 in their Leeds office but began to concentrate on painting full-time in 1861. Being a self-taught artist, his early influence is attributed to a contemporary Leeds artist of the Pre-Raphaelite style, John William Inchbold (a friend of John Ruskins). The city also had several art galleries so Grimshaw was able to see the work of Holman Hunt, Henry Wallis, and William Powell Frith. The technique and realism of Pre-Raphaelite style, as well as the intensity and role of color, would also play a part in his later landscapes.  As with the Pre-Raphaelites, he would also draw on contemporary poetry and literature to inspire his work, especially Alfred Lord Tennyson (The Lotus Eaters, The Lady of Shalott and Ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington). 

  Knostrop Hall

John Atkinson Grimshaw with daughter Elaine outside front gateway of Knostrop Hall 

Grimshaw soon became popular in Leeds, selling his work through a couple of small galleries and picture dealers. His growing popularity, particularly with art collectors in the northern urban centers, encouraged him to paint the industrial ports and harbors of Liverpool, Hull, Scarborough, Whitby and Glasgow. By the 1870s, he was at his most successful and had rented Knostrop Hall, a 17th century manor house in Leeds.  Old Hall remained the Grimshaw family main home, for he and his wife Frances Theodosia Hubbard Grimshaw (1835-1917), for the next 23 years. She gave birth to fifteen children but only six reached adulthood; all of whom were named after Tennyson’s poems or historical figures i.e. Elaine and Lancelot.  John Atkinson Grimshaw died at Knostrop Hall on October 13, 1893. It was demolished in 1960.  He used its interiors as a backdrop and painted a series of fashionably dressed women in the style of James Tissot and collaborated with the dealer William Agnew to buy and sell his works in London. 

John Atkinson Grimshaw also painted Knostrop Hall in to his paintings usually as a backdrop home in the foreground or off to the side of a hilltop. Some of my favorites are: 

  Evening Knostrop Hall, 1870
  Knostrop Hall Early Morning, 1870

Some of his nostalgic night scenes include: Nightfall Down the Thames (1880), The Thames by Moonlight (1884). It is even harder to believe that John Atkinson Grimshaw only exhibited five works in total at the Royal Academy, between 1874 and 1886.

 The Thames by Moonlight with Southwark Bridge, 1884

   Nightfall down The Thames, 1880


Atkinson Grimshaw by Alexander Robertson, Phaidon Press Ltd;  1996


Please feel free to leave any comments,


Kevin said...

Great post. Love his paintings. Nice to see the photos, too!

Kimberly Eve said...

Hi Kevin, Yes, wasn't Grimshaw amazing! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Hermes said...

His complete works are here:

Many came about after what seems to have been a bankruptcy about 1880. There were a number of painters who took up his style.

Kimberly Eve said...

Hi Hermes, thanks for the link. It's a great site with so many of his beautiful paintings! Grimshaw led an interesting life and it was difficult for me to choose what aspects of his life to include and to leave out. I agree, he influenced many but doesn't seem to get the recognition he deserves. Thanks for commenting!

Hels said...

OK I am back to Alfred Lord Tennyson again and this time in connection with John A Grimshaw. I can see Tennyson's literary footprints all over Grimshaw's paintings, but I cannot find out if a] Grimshaw ever travelled down to the Isle of Wight, the scene of a few of his paintings and b] the writer and the painter ever met and spent time together? I hope you can help me!!

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