Self-taught and from Yorkshire, Atkinson Grimshaw became an artist the hard way. Jane Sellars looks at his brilliant career and sometimes tragic life
The woman with the umbrella hesitates on the corner of the rain-swept street, her umbrella lifted in the act of opening; she is in Glasgow, by the Clyde, with the ships' masts towering above her into the moonlit sky. This female figure was part of the visual repertoire of Atkinson Grimshaw, the Leeds-born artist whose atmospheric moonlit scenes have captured the imagination of the modern audience just as they charmed Victorian gallery-goers and collectors from the 1860s.
We find the woman again in Hampstead's Heath Street in London, her solitary figure a focus of attention; while on Leeds's Park Row she stands in the shadows, as if in a reverie, her umbrella held tightly to her body. In Boar Lane, Leeds, she finally turns her back on us and hurries off towards the brightly lit shops.
Born on 6 September 1836 at 9 Back Park Street, Leeds, one of six, the young Atkinson had no artistic training – any such interest was considered time-wasting, foolish and unproductive by his strict Baptist parents, Mary Atkinson and David Grimshaw. His mother supposedly turned off the gas in his room and threw his paints on the fire, so the would‑be artist searched out local book dealers and framers who might have paintings for him to study. In 1852 Grimshaw joined the Great Northern Railway Company as a clerk, and seemed set for a career in a modern business, but he began to study and practice the art of painting in his spare time.
However, there was a growing interest in the fine arts in Leeds, with the Northern Society promoting British artists, exhibitions in small private galleries, country house art collections to visit, and books and prints to consult in the Leeds Library. By the mid-1850s, the most progressive art in England was the Pre-Raphaelite style with its emphasis on truth to nature, and Grimshaw's early works – still-lifes of birds' nests and moss-covered stones, then landscapes of local picturesque sites such as Bolton Abbey – were painted in this manner. In 1858, Grimshaw married his cousin Fanny; this enabled him to leave the family home, abandon his railway job and embark on a career as an artist.
Grimshaw rapidly developed his own style and technique during the 1860s. Whitby Harbour by Moonlight, of 1867, is probably his first moonlight painting, in which the hard edges of Pre-Raphaelitism begin to soften. By 1870 the artist was able to convey a much more atmospheric view of the world, where mood, poetry and even mystery took hold. He became the 'painter of moonlight', building up a band of wealthy northern collectors and finding the financial success he needed to support his growing family. In 1870 he rented Knostrop Old Hall, a 17th-century mansion with panelling and a grand oak staircase, to the east of the town along the river Aire. It was at this time that Grimshaw achieved his most consistent style and created his recognisable themes, such as the moonlit suburban lane with a mysterious half-hidden house and the lone figure of a woman walking along the road.
Aged 34, Grimshaw embarked on his most successful decade. He refined his technique, expanded his subject matter and, represented by Thomas Agnew and Son, moved into the London and provincial art markets. Increasingly, his moonlit landscapes and cityscapes bathed his subjects in an evocative glow: the drabness of these urban scenes is transformed by Grimshaw's light effects. The first dockside scenes, such as Glasgow Docks of 1883, were also produced at this time – usually with rainy streets, brightly lit shop windows and a variety of passers by. In this Glasgow scene, along with the lady with the umbrella, there are road workers warming themselves at a brazier and two people huddled in conversation on the pavement as the coaches whip past, creating dark reflections on the wet street. Grimshaw painted the Glasgow docks from different angles, repeating the subject over almost 20 years, as he did with many other popular views, in order to keep the money coming in. He collected antique furniture and blue and white china to adorn Knostrop Hall, and apparently fell into debt after he took on a second rented home in the mid-1870s, the Castle by the Sea in Scarborough. He may have travelled to Glasgow, but he is known to have depended to some degree on photographs. As early as the 1860s, he collected picture postcards of Lake District landscapes on which he based a number of paintings, such as Blea Tarn and Nab Scar.
Moonlit landscapes had been painted since the 17th century, but Grimshaw's moonlight illuminates the contemporary urban scene, which had changed so much in the previous half century. The docks of Glasgow and Liverpool, and the fishing ports of Whitby, Hull and Scarborough, presented many possibilities for light effects on water. The realities of modern urban life appealed to him, but there was a general unease in society about social change. It was perhaps a sense of regret for the past that inspired Grimshaw to imbue his paintings with a sense of nostalgia, making them so appealing both to his contemporaries and to viewers in the 21st century.
Following the artistic success of the 1870s, Grimshaw's career at times floundered. In the search for new subjects that would appeal to new audiences of art buyers, he painted classical scenes in the style of Alma-Tadema, and images of beautifully dressed women in the manner of Tissot. He tried to make a mark on the London art scene, renting a studio in Chelsea and taking with him his model Agnes Leefe, who was part of the household at Knostrop Hall during the 1880s. Grimshaw's family history was profoundly sad. In the first five years of marriage, the couple had four babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth, and one daughter, Clara, who lived to be 12. Altogether, they had 16 children, only six of whom – Arthur, Enid, Louis, Wilfred and twins Lancelot and Elaine – survived into adult life.
In 1890 Grimshaw's model Agnes Leefe died of TB at Knostrop, casting a shadow on the household that Elaine wrote about in her unpublished memoir of her father. Soon after, the artist's own health began to fail, and yet he continued to paint, experimenting with an ever more impressionistic style, painting snowy landscapes and Whistlerian sea views. It fell to Elaine's son, Guy Ragland Phillips, to write about Grimshaw's last days. "He had cancer. He had a mountain of debts. He had no assets, except the skill of his hands and brain in the time that remained to him. He painted all day long, seven days a week, completing picture after picture. Occasionally he would rest. The day came when he could no longer stand at the easel. He crept upstairs, on hands and knees, to the magnificent Persian brass bed that he had bought, complete with silk hangings, not long before... Once, in the last few hours, Grimshaw turned to his wife and whispered: 'No sun, no moon, no stars.'" He died on 31 October 1893.
Jane Sellars is curator of art at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate.