Lines and Colors art blog

John Atkinson Grimshaw

John Atkinson Grimshaw
If, like me, you have had access to the same art museum for several years, you have likely developed favorites — works you look forward to seeing again and again as you return to the museum.

For me one of these has been a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art titled Liverpool from Wapping (images above, top, with detail, second down) by Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw.

The wonderfully atmospheric portrayal of misty twilight along the docks and the warm glow of gaslit windows reflected in wet sidewalks and the grimy slick of the streets captures my attention whenever I walk into the gallery where is hangs. (For some reason, this painting seems to be missing from the museum’s online collection database, though it has been in the museum for as long as I can remember. There are versions here and here, but the color is off in these and most reproductions I’ve seen of this painting. The photos at top are my own, and there is a bit of reflected light in the first one.)

Early on my fascination with this painting encouraged me to look up Grimshaw and find, to my delight, that it was not an anomaly but representative of much of his work. Though he also painted figures, room interiors, other landscape subjects and even fairy pictures, his most frequent themes were docks, towns, streets and rural lanes in misty, rainy, nighttime and low-light conditions.

In these compositions, he utilized a controlled, muted palette and low range of values over most of the image, with a highlighted area of brighter intensity, often the moon or a fog-bound sun, along with the reflected light it projected on wet surfaces. He frequently included a lone, often sihlouetted figure.

Grimshaw’s earliest works showed the distinct influence of landscapes by Pre-Raphaelite painters like William Holman Hunt, Ford Maddox Brown and Sir John Everett Millais, but even early on, he evidenced a fascination with moonlight, mist and fog.

At the end of his career, Grimshaw was experimenting with seascapes in a manner influenced by the French Impressionists, but his own style and subject matter made up the mainstay of his work.

He did not exhibit often, preferring to paint for private patrons, but his work was in demand, and was forged as well as imitated by other artists during his lifetime. He would eventually use just “Atkinson Grimshaw” as his working name, and you will find him commonly referenced that way.

There is an exhibition of Grimshaw’s work, Atkinson Grimshaw, Painter of Moonlight, which is the first major retrospective in 60 years, at the Guild Hall Art Gallery in London, UK, that runs until 15 January, 2012.

Unfortunately it doesn’t appear a catalog has been published to accompany the exhibit, and the only major print collection I’m aware of, Atkinson Grimshaw by Alexander Robertson, is out of print though it may be found used. [Addendum: Readers have been kind enough to inform us that there is a catalog, please see this post’s comments.}

Grimshaw’s studio in the Chelsea section of London was near that of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who reportedly said of Grimshaw, “I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw [his] moonlit pictures”.


8 responses to “John Atkinson Grimshaw”

  1. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing this artist and his work. I’ve never seen him before. His capture of ephemeral light is especially impressive considering that he was working before color photography (to have as an in studio aid…).

  2. James Weatherhill Avatar
    James Weatherhill

    Appreciate the post and am Glad to see your statements pertaining to Atkinson Grimshaws’ work. My wife and I saw a large painting of his at an Exhibition in Canada, years back – The title of the painting escapes me at the moment, yet, the one thing that forever remained was the undeniable presence of atmosphere that sincerely, just floored us. It was almost palpable and we still speak in awe of the image and its rendering. Again, as you say, reproductions have never come close, in colour or feel. Thanks as well for an always interesting ‘blog’.

  3. Reproductions can’t fully capture paintings like these, but nontheless they’re a gift. I’ve come to rely on Lines and Colors to introduce me to artists of many kinds, and this one is a particular pleasure. I love these paintings. They’re evocative, suffused with subtle color, dim and yet luminous. What a painter.

    Thanks, Charley Parker, for all the work you put into maintaining this blog, enriching us all. Particular thanks for your appreciation of Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker,” as well as introducing us to Grimshaw.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. My pleasure, as always.

  4. Charley – many thanks for this post – I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember which was the exhibition I still had to get to see before it closed – today!

    Just been up to the Guildhall Art Library to see it.

    I asked about the catalogue for the Painting Moonlight” exhibition (there is one). You can get it direct rom the Guildhall Art Library shop for the (reduced) prize of £17. They will even ship to the USA but that costs £13. Ring the shop during opening hours and give them your credit card details. Their telephone number is +44 207 606 3030 extension 2056

  5. John Gibson Avatar
    John Gibson

    The exhibition was held first at The Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. I visited it in late July, 2011. I enjoyed it immensely. I can confirm there is a – very substantial – exhibition catalogue.

  6. Michael Dibdin Avatar
    Michael Dibdin

    There is something far back in my mind that makes me think that I was in that street with the church spire in the background.

    I see no titles for the works on this page, is this deliberate?

    1. I simply don’t have time to provide that information. Try following some of the general links I’ve provided to online collections of Grimshaw’s work for information about specific paintings.