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John Atkinson Grimshaw(Leeds1836 - Leeds1893)

Grimshaw 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, Brighouse, Smith Art Gallery), 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, London, Christopher Wood Gallery), and the Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (c. 1864, London, Tate Gallery). 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-mémoire. The culmination of this early period is Autumn Glory: The Old Mill (1869, Leeds), 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, private collection), 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.

In the 1870s Grimshaw was at the peak of his success. He rented Knostrop Hall, a manor house in Leeds, and a seaside home, Castle-by-the-Sea, at Scarborough; he sold his work through William Agnew’s galleries in London and the provinces. He extended his subject-matter to include re-creations of ancient Greece and Rome in the style of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, as well as producing paintings of fashionable modern women, imitating James Tissot. There were also literary subjects from Tennyson and Longfellow. However, Grimshaw’s roots remained strongly in the north, and in 1880 he produced his masterpiece of townscape, Leeds Bridge (Leeds). A financial crisis around this time forced him to vacate his Scarborough home, and in the 1880s he took a studio in Chelsea, London. His output increased, but often he painted over photographs, and, it has been claimed, developed a technique of projecting images on to a canvas, which could then be painted. Two of his sons, Arthur Grimshaw (1864–1913) and Louis H. Grimshaw (1870–?1944), imitated their father’s style, as did Walter Meegan and Wilfred Jenkins. In his final years Grimshaw produced small riverscapes, in a two-tone colour range, very much in the mood of Whistler, whom Grimshaw is reputed to have known in London. During the last winter of his life he painted snow scenes. Today Grimshaw is seen as one of the minor Victorian masters, his place assured by his moonlights, evocative of Victorian life of the 1870s and 1880s.

Grimshaw is represented in the following collections: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Tate Gallery, London; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; Tyne & Wear Museums, England, amongst others.