The Victorian artist Atkinson Grimshaw, known for his atmospheric moonlit nocturnes, who was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London. It’s unmistakeably the name of a Yorkshireman, which you find yourself almost irresistibly pronouncing in the flat-vowelled, no-nonsense drawl of that northerly county, almost a country unto itself. It doesn’t sounds more like the name of an industrialist than a painter, and indeed, his strict Baptist parents were aghast when he showed an interest in becoming an artist, actively discouraging such an unremunerative and impractical choice of career. At the time of Atkinson’s birth in Leeds in 1836, his father was a policeman, although he later became a worker on the area’s rapidly expanding railways, whilst his mother was a shopkeeper at a grocer’s. Atkinson followed in his father’s footsteps and, at the age of 16, went to work for the Great Northern Railway as a clerk. He studied painting and practiced his art in his spare time. He could pick up examples of the latest styles, in particular those of the pre-Raphaelites, in exhibitions put on by the Northern Society (based in Leeds) and learn art history from the books in Leeds Library, a collection open to all through subscription. His marriage to Frances Hubbarde, affectionately known as Fanny, gave him a bit more leeway, as she was the daughter of the proprietor of the Wakefield Gazette. But he was always conscious of the need to make a living from his painting, and to produce a quantity of work which would appeal to a wide enough market in order to so.
Bowder Stone, BorrowdaleHis early paintings show the influence of the pre-Raphaelites, and in particular their painstaking attention to the minutiae of the natural world. Many of these works took their overall composition, or extracted details from, photographs, which could be studied at leisure in the studio. The atmosphere and detailed representation were undoubtedly drawn from direct observation, however. Grimshaw eschewed the moralising or symbolic aspects of the pre-Raphaelites’ work, allowing his landscapes or nature studies to stand on their own merits, and project their own emotional ambience. The vistas of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, of Blea Tarn, Nab Scar and Ingleborough from under White Scar, provided him with wild and dramatic scenery. Using emerald and mossy greens, distance hazed purples and heathery violets, and bracken browns, he imbued them with a shimmering, slightly otherworldly stillness. They are largely depopulated, devoid of traces of human presence other than in the snaking dry stone walls, wayfarer’s huts, lakeside cottages, and the ladder straddling the side of the Bowder Stone in Borrowdale. They have a super-real clarity which precludes the changeable drama of Romanticism, even when, as in Ingleborough From Under White Scar (1868), a storm is sweeping in from the head of the valley. There is nothing of Turner’s violent vortices of dark cloud and baleful light against which clusters of human figures struggle. Perhaps Yorkshiremen are better used to grim weather, and take a more sanguine view as a result. Whilst he was living on the North Eastern coast, Grimshaw did paint a couple of pictures which conformed more to Romantic subject matter: The Burning of the Spa Saloon (1876) and In Peril (1879), with its brazier fire beacon blown into sparking trails by the storm winds, and sea spume crashing over the sea wall, as figures huddle against the elements to watch a boat struggle to reach the harbour. But these are exceptions, uncharacteristic of his work as a whole.
Autumn Glory: The Old MillIf Grimshaw avoided the grand drama of Romanticism (although he was romantic enough in spirit to name many of his children after the Arthurian characters in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King), he definitely exhibited a taste for the gothic, in line with the neo-gothicism of the time. His paintings show a fascination for the romance of ruins, and for old buildings veiled or swallowed up by nature. An important transitional picture, Autumn Glory: The Old Mill (1869) frames the Elizabethan building in the background, illuminated in green-tinted sunlight, with tree branches. The dark autumnal woodland, with densely thicketed undergrowth, forms the foreground and, with tendrils and twigs tracing exploratory, probing lines across the mill’s brickwork, seems to threaten to invade and overwhelm the building entirely. Full Moon Behind Cirrus Cloud from the Roundhay Castle Battlements (1872), as the exhaustively all-encompassing title makes clear, views the nocturnal expanse of the Leeds park from the vantage point of the old ivy entwined crenellations. Grimshaw’s favourite season was definitely autumn, and paintings like October Gold (1893), November Morning (1883), and Autumn Regrets (1882),with its black clad lady reclining wistfully on a stone garden bench, make full use of the golden morning or evening light and the burnished browns of the leaves clinging to the trees and carpeting the ground.
IrisGrimshaw’s famous fairy painting Iris (it’s widespread popularity reflected by a Victorian postcard presented in the exhibition) is also a study in Autumnal colours and light. The pointillistic scatter of coloured phospor spots (reds, greens, yellows and blues) radiating from Iris’ iridescent wings diffuses to blend with the general shimmering luminescence permeating the woodland spaces surrounding the lake, over which she hovers like a phantasmagorical dragonfly. He is like a seasonal spirit, a herald of autumnal atmospheres. Whilst she is in some ways typical of the subjects of Victorian fairy painting, she is noticeably more solid and real. Grimshaw drew her from his live in model, Agnes Leefe, turning her recling form around so that, in the painting, it hung suspended in the air. As a result, his Iris differs from the fey, fragile figures of Richard Dadd or John Anster Fitzgerald. Rather than taking A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest as his inspiration, Grimshaw turned to Greek mythology. Iris is the goddess who mediates between the worlds of the divine and the human. She leaves rainbow trails in her wake as she travels between them.
Knostrop Old Hall, Early MorningGrimshaw and his family moved to their own gothic pile in 1870, renting the 17th century mansion Knostrop Hall, which lay about 2 miles to the east of Leeds. With its overgrown garden, wild growth garlanding old statues and fountains, and its jumble of stone gates, gables, towers, panelled windows and stacked chimney rows, it was the ideal setting for his atmospheric autumnal studies. Knostrop Old Hall, Early Morning, painted in the year they moved in, places the house in the background, viewed from the perspective of the garden. This is a place of neglect and decay, wild nature usurping the order and ornamentation of human cultivation. Long, distended wintry branches reach out spindly, twiggy fingers in an almost Arthur Rackham-esque fashion. A stagnant pond, brown with leaf mould, has a verdigrised fountain at its centre, long-dry. An abandoned and half-buried lawn roller, handle stretched flat out, rests where it was last laid down, many seasons ago. A haphazard heap of terracotta pots and pot shards fill an old circular flower bed, now a walled town for mice, frogs and hedgehogs. Ivy sends its dark, trailing tendrils in all directions, seeking something to strangle. Blackbirds sift through the leaf litter piled in drifting layers across the fast disappearing plots. Beyond the walls of this hushed, secret space, a farmer with horse and plough can be hazily glimpsed in the morning light traipsing up the hill, half a world away. This is a place which seems to invite haunting.
Grimshaw would also paint Knostrop and other houses from the perspective of the roads which negotiated their boundary walls. They would be seen over the walls’ brim and through intersecting tree branches, windows glinting in the sun, or glowing with orange light from within at night. The moonlit, morning or evening luminescence of these pictures makes everything seem immanent, suspended. Buildings and people become mysterious, as if seen through a veil. There is often a female figure walking away in the middle distance, indistinct and with her back to us. These lonely figures, just beyond the limits of ready identification, appear slightly spectral, an effect enhanced by the passage of time. A shawl could easily be a shroud. This is particularly the case in the richly, eerily atmospheric 1872 painting Tree Shadows on the Park Wall, Roundhay Park, Leeds. Here, it’s not certain whether the dark, shadowy, faceless figure is moving away from or gliding towards us. These too are haunted pictures, and appropriately enough, a detail from one was used as the cover for the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories. Sadly, Atkinson and Fanny left some ghosts of their own at the Hall. In 1874, three of their young children, Clara, Herbert and Gertrude, died from diphtheria. Gertrude had been a particular favourite of Atkinson’s, and there is a desperately sad watercolour sketch included in the exhibition; A small circle of paper upon which he painted her in just after she had died, a memento in which he captured the last fading flush of life still blooming her cheeks. Agnes Leefe, a young actress who had come to live at Knostrop in 1879, acting as Atkinson’s model and studio assistant, as well as providing other services within the household. Died there in 1890 from consumption. The Grimshaw’s had rented another house in Scarborough in 1876, the mock-gothic retreat of Castle-by-the-Sea in Scarborough, in order to get away from Knostrop, but it remained their base, and Atkinson himself died there in 1893, on Halloween.
Boar Lane, Leeds by LamplightGrimshaw is best remembered for his moon and gaslit nocturnal pictures, which became his signature mode, adapted to various settings. One of the earliest of these was his Whitby Harbour by Moonlight (1867), in which the waters of the River Esk reflect the illumination of the full moon, which shines through dappled cloud, the yellow gaslit interiors of the surrounding buildings, and the twin red beams of the lamps on the bridge. Grimshaw would go on to paint other nocturnal harbour scenes, as well as depicting the night streets of busy town centres in the rapidly expanding industrial areas of the north. These pictures are characterised by a soft-edged, green-tinted lunar illumination, balanced by the buttery yellowish glow spilling out from the houses and shopfronts. They are also punctuated by the scattered twinkle of gas lamps, sharp and focussed in the foreground, fading to hazy blurs as they recede into the distance; an array of urban constellations. In Boar Lane, Leeds by Lamplight (1881), it is the yellow of gaslight which predominates. In Princes Dock, Hull (1887), the greenish haze of moonglow is the presiding tone. Small, bright points of red or emerald green puncture these miasmic atmospheres, either in the form of harbour lights, cab lamps or the illuminated jars of coloured liquid in a chemist’s window. These street or harbour scenes tend to be depicted just after a rain shower. People carry just furled umbrellas, or are in the process of folding them up. This is partly northern realism, but it also allows for the reflection of light off rain-soaked cobbles, and glints from wet, wheel-polished tram rails.
Silver MoonlightGrimshaw also painted the tree-lined outskirts of the city, and the farms and fields which lay beyond it, bathing them in his nocturnal moonglow. His moons tend to be full, circled daubs of creamy paint, and they are often set in mottled, broken cloud, scabbing the sky with luminous plates. Grimshaw’s moonlight radiates a pale green luminescence, permeating everything and creating a subaqueous viridian ambience. This creates an otherworldly atmosphere, redolent of science fiction magazine and paperback covers, in which the skies and seas of alien planets are coloured in a similarly rich and unearthly fashion. This is the green miasma in which the world is enveloped in HG Wells’ novel In the Days of the Comet, after the comet’s tail has swept through the upper atmosphere. It’s also the green colour to which the sky sickens as the alien harvesting machine probes the planet in Nigel Kneale’s final 1978 Quatermass story. In these borderland pictures, the light is broken up by the complex weave of winter tree branches, as opposed to the more linear grid of ships masts and rigging in the harbour or Thameside paintings. These branches also cast moonshadows which, overlaid upon pavement, rough road surface or ploughed field (filled with reflective puddles), produce an effect of marbled veining.
Roundhay ParkIn 1872, Grimshaw was commissioned by the Leeds Corporation to paint three views of the city’s Roundhay Park, which they wanted to turn into a public space. Grimshaw produced three nocturnes, showing the park largely depopulated, at the time the public were least likely to be using it. The idea of Roundhay as a public park, filled with bustling life during the day time, makes these depictions of its quiet nocturnal aspect all the more haunting. These are landscapes pregnant with absence, the pathways and viewpoints which would be so popular in the daylight hours empty save for the odd lonely, brooding presence.
Snow and Mist: Caprice in Yellow MinorGrimshaw moved down to London for a couple of years between 1885-7, in a frankly commercial move designed to swiftly earn some much needed income. This did allow him to move near to one of his great influences and inspirations, James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Grimshaw lived and had his studio in Manresa Road, Chelsea, just around the corner from Whistler’s residence in Tite Street, with its immaculate Aesthetic architecture and interiors. He struck up a casual acquaintance with Whistler, who knew most of the artists lived around the Chelsea area. He had always been something of a model for Grimshaw; His copy of the artist’s book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, included in the exhibition, is annotated, with certain passages highlighted. Grimshaw created his own versions of the Aesthetic interior at Knostrop Hall and Castle-by-the-Sea, and used them in a number of paintings in the Aesthetic style. There are tasteful arrangements of blue and white china, Japanese fans, oriental fabrics, with Whistler-like women languorously draped across chaises longues, slumped in Chinese chairs or gazing pensively into the half distance in conservatories full of exotic blooms. In the last years of his life, Grimshaw would explore new areas, painting small tonal studies in the manner of Whistler’s Colour Symphonies. The blue greys of The Port Light most resembles one of Whistler’s London nocturnes. Snow and Mist: Caprice in Yellow Minor (1892-3) borrows its title from Whistler’s correlations of musical and visual composition for its study of whites and beiges. Knostrop Cut, Leeds, Sunday Night, painted in the last year of his life, combines the golden hour radiance of warm oranges and yellows with the brown of boats and muddy towpath.
London, View of Heath Street by NightThe paintings which Grimshaw produced in London are essentially replications of the northern nocturne style, with the prominent inclusion of well-known landmark buildings such as Big Ben and St Paul’s, and the depiction of the clubland and theatre districts of Pall Mall and Piccadilly guaranteeing commercial appeal. One of the most effective is Reflections on the Thames, Westminster, painted during an earlier visit to the city in 1880. This shares the characteristics of his signature nocturnes, with its green-tinged skies, full moon behind dappled cloud (here echoed by the palely glowing face of Big Ben), gaslit points of light and reflecting waters. But it differs in its foregrounding of human activity, unsenstationally observing women, both fruit sellers and prostitutes, parading up and down the Embankment. The touch of red which generally appears in Grimshaw’s paintings in the form of a light (and there is one here, too) is present in the form of bright splashes in the patterns of the women’s dresses and bonnets. The symbol-stuffed moralising of the pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian artists when approaching modern subjects is rejected in favour of an understated wistfulness, with the woman in the foreground leaning on the embankment wall and gazing out over the moonlit waters, alone with her thoughts. Grimshaw thus grants her an individual humanity, rather than consigning her to that sociological type which the Victorian’s wrung their hands about so much – the fallen woman. There was often a wistfulness about Grimshaw’s female subjects (and he very seldom portrayed men), which perhaps was in keeping with the autumnal tone of much of his work. The women of Il Penseroso (1875), Snowbound (1883-5), Fiametta (1883), and Autumn Regrets (1882) all seem lost in their own, slightly melancholy private worlds. Another of his best London paintings takes us out of the centre and up to Hamstead. London, View of Heath Street by Night is an after the rain nocturne with the woman with the umbrella, a figure who appears in several Grimshaw paintings, here a shadowy figure in the foreground, standing by a kerbside bollard. It’s a view which can still be seen, so get a postcard, travel up on the Northern Line, and compare past with present.