Atkinson Grimshaw: Visionary painter of Victorian England

Atkinson Grimshaw used oil paints to depict industrial change in the same way that Elizabeth Gaskell (North and South) and Charles Dickens (Hard Times) penned words. Water-colours and paintings apart, he left no letters, journals, or papers that record his life.

Grimshaw was born in Leeds, England, in 1836, where his father was a policeman who, in 1848, switched to the newly opened railways. As a strict Baptist, Grimshaw’s mother strongly disapproved of his interest in art and on one occasion even threw out his paints. In 1852 he took a post as clerk at the Great Northern Railway office in Leeds, but left it after nine years to become a full-time painter.

One of Grimshaw’s first patrons was Thomas Fenteman, an antiquarian bookseller who was deeply religious and would only buy pictures if Grimshaw assured him they had not been painted on a Sunday. William Agnew, a London art dealer, also began purchasing his work and further success came when a painting was accepted by London’s Royal Academy. Locally, Grimshaw’s work appealed to the wealthy industrialists and professional men of Leeds, who were determined to improve the moral and cultural life of the city’s inhabitants. Art critic John Ruskin had argued that fine art was a moral activity, an ethical criticism of life, and that industry, too, ought to be essentially moral.

Night scenes were a favourite of Grimshaw. Well-known today, they include Liverpool from Wapping (1875), Nightfall down the Thames (1880), Shipping on the Clyde (1881), Park Row, Leeds (1882), The Thames by Moonlight (1884), Liverpool Quay by Moonlight (1887) and Prince’s Dock, Hull (1887). The paintings evoked the smoke pollution and damp fogs common to industrial cities in the late 19th century. Grimshaw was captivated by the effects of moonlight, which gave them a romantic aura that matched what little is known of his own character. Attracted by the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Longfellow and Tennyson, Grimshaw not only named his house after a Longfellow poem, but his children after characters in Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”, evoking another time.

In the 1880s, Grimshaw had a studio in Chelsea, London, not far from that of American-born painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose book “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” was published in 1890. It was written in response to critic John Ruskin, who had referred to Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (right) as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Grimshaw read the book and marked the following passage, which might have been his credo:

“And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky and the tall chimneys become campanili and the warehouses are palaces in the night and the whole city hangs in the heavens and fairy land is before us – then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who for once has sung in tune sings her exquisite song to the artist alone.”

Unlike Whistler’s impressionistic night scenes, Grimshaw’s paintings were almost photographic in their detail, using rain, mist, gaslight and darkness to invoke mystery and stealth. When he was making Sweeney Todd (2007), film director Tim Burton used his paintings as inspiration – a tribute Grimshaw could not have foreseen since he died in 1893, just three years before London’s first public film screening by Auguste and Louis Lumière.

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