John Atkinson Grimshaw

(6 September 1836 – 13 October 1893)

English painter. He had no formal art training but learnt from examples he saw in local art shops. The greatest influence on his early work was John William Inchbold, a Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter from Leeds. Grimshaw gave up his work as a clerk on the railways to take up painting full-time in 1861. His first pictures were of dead birds, blossom and fruit studies in the manner of William Henry Hunt. He accepted Ruskin's view of the world in his 'truth to nature' paintings of the woods around Adel and Meanwood in Leeds. Grimshaw's picture A Mossy Glen (1864) is close to Inchbold's technique and colour range. His first patrons were members of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Grimshaw began to exhibit from 1862, and he showed five paintings in all at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Two works from this period show his Pre-Raphaelite interests: Nab Scar (1864) and the Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (c. 1864). Both are painted in a crisp, hard-edge manner in brilliantly fresh colours. Nab Scar is closely based on a photograph that Grimshaw used as an aide. The culmination of this early period is Autumn Glory: The Old Mill (1869), in which all the detail of leaves, twigs, ivy and moss-covered stone is painstakingly shown. Moonlight scenes are Grimshaw's best-known subjects. The earliest is Whitby Harbour by Moonlight (1867), which shows the town in full colour, bathed in moonlight. This broader technique, often featuring the mysterious atmosphere of mist-laden horizons, was particularly appreciated by middle-class clients, often northern industrialists. Grimshaw's dock scenes of Liverpool, Hull and Glasgow, and the manor houses glimpsed down leafy, stone-walled suburban lanes, along which a single figure walks, were especially popular. The lonely houses are usually combinations of different buildings, often taken from architectural plates. His early paintings were signed "JAG," "J. A. Grimshaw," or "John Atkinson Grimshaw," though he finally settled on "Atkinson Grimshaw."

In 1856 he married his cousin Frances Hubbard. In 1861, at the age of 24, to the dismay of his parents, he left his job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to become a painter. He first exhibited in 1862, mostly paintings of birds, fruit and blossom, under the patronage of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. He became successful in the 1870s and rented a second home in Scarborough, which became a favourite subject. Several of his children, Arthur, Louis H. , Wilfred, and Elaine Grimshaw, became painters. (Grimshaw named his children after characters in Tennyson's poems.)


Grimshaw's primary influence was the Pre-Raphaelites. True to the Pre-Raphaelite style, he created landscapes of accurate colour, lighting, vivid detail,and realism. He painted landscapes that typified seasons or a type of weather; city and suburban street scenes and moonlit views of the docks in London, Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow also figured largely in his art. His careful painting and skill in lighting effects meant that he captured both the appearance and the mood of a scene in minute detail. His "paintings of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene."

Dulce Domum (1855), on whose reverse Grimshaw wrote, "mostly painted under great difficulties," captures the music portrayed in the piano-player, entices the eye to meander through the richly decorated room, and to consider the still and silent young lady who is listening. Grimshaw painted more interior scenes, especially in the 1870s, when he worked under the influence of James Tissot and the Aesthetic Movement.

On Hampstead Hill is considered one of Grimshaw's finest works, exemplifying his skill with a variety of light sources, in capturing the mood of the passing of twilight into night. In his later career his urban scenes under twilight or yellow streetlighting were popular with his middle-class patrons.

His later work included imagined scenes from the Greek and Roman empires, and he painted literary subjects from Longfellow and Tennyson -- pictures including Elaine and The Lady of Shalott.

In the 1880s, Grimshaw maintained a London studio in Chelsea, not far from the studio of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After visiting Grimshaw, Whistler remarked that "I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures." Unlike Whistler's Impressionistic night scenes Grimshaw worked in a realistic vein: "sharply focused, almost photographic," his pictures innovated in applying the tradition of rural moonlight images to the Victorian city, recording "the rain and mist, the puddles and smoky fog of late Victorian industrial England with great poetry."

Grimshaw's paintings depicted the contemporary world but eschewed the dirty and depressing aspects of industrial towns. Shipping on the Clyde, a depiction of Glasgow's Victorian docks, is a lyrically beautiful evocation of the industrial era. Grimshaw transcribed the fog and mist so accurately as to capture the chill in the damp air, and the moisture penetrating the heavy clothes of the few figures awake in the misty early morning.

Some artists of Grimshaw's period, like Vincent Van Gogh and James Smetham, left letters and documents recording their work and lives. Grimshaw left behind no letters, journals, or papers; scholars and critics have little material on which to base their understanding of his life and career.

Grimshaw died 13 October 1893, and is buried in Woodhouse Hill Cemetery, Hunslet, Leeds. His reputation rested on, and his legacy is based on, his townscapes.