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Atkinson Grimshaw, Victorian Painter

by John Cobley

Wednesday Aug 31st, 2016


Quite a discovery! I first came across Atkinson Grimshaw in Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. She devotes a full page to this obscure English painter and includes one example of his work, Liverpool Docks from Wapping. This page is part of a section entitled “Varieties of Gloom,” which explores how some Victorian artists were interested in darkness. Harris admits that “darkness as an aesthetic choice…is a strange phenomenon,” but she finds several artists who depict dark scenes. She ties the phenomenon in with the Victorian predilection for autumn.


Grimshaw illustrates Harris’s point perfectly. Many of his landscapes are distinctly autumnal; as well, he developed a strong interest in evening or night scenes. His later work is full of night scenes, whether urban, suburban or rural. Night scenes, or Nocturnes as Whistler called them, became Grimshaw’s trademark, although he also did many life paintings and daylight scenes. The scope of Grimshaw’s work can be found in the most recent of the four books published on this Victorian painter—Alexander Robertson’s Atkinson Grimshaw, published by Phaidon in 1988.


What is immediately striking in Robertson’s book is Grimshaw’s skill. In his early Pre-Raphaelite period (he admired Millais and Hunt), he shows the high level of technical skills that the Pre-Raphaelites were famous for. This can be seen in Dulce Domum and Il Pensoroso, where the detail is frankly amazing. Also impressive is the use of colour both in his daylight and night-time works. The only weakness I can discern is with the human face. Grimshaw seems unable to capture individual personality in female faces; there is a similarity in many of them that can only be called doll-like.


Faced with the quality of Grimshaw’s painting skills, an obvious question arises: why isn’t he more famous today? Why isn’t his name up there with Constable, Turner and Millais? Part of the answer is that he was a provincial painter who for most of his life lived in Yorkshire, far away from the avant-garde London and Paris scenes. Thus his work has been considered derivative and behind the times by art critics. His abilities were plain to see, but he did not produce any works that stirred up the international art world.


Although he was recognised for his night paintings, such a genre had already been established successfully by Whistler, who according to Alexandra Harris “was the leader of a nocturnal cult.” The American had started painting his nocturnes at least a decade earlier (Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso, 1866). So even though Grimshaw moved well beyond Whistler’s misty nocturnes, he wasn’t noticed as an true innovator might have been.





 Dulce Domum (1867-1885) shows off Grimshaw’s technique. This detail of the foregrounded woman covers about 20% of the painting. It is the highlight of a living room scene filled with carpets, paintings, a table and a second woman playing the piano. The detail shows not only fine colours but also sharp detail in the dress, shawl, chair, carpets and vase. The anomaly is the face of the foregrounded woman, which is “out of focus” and bland. It’s as if Grimshaw wanted the viewer to pass over the face and focus on the domestic details. Or did he just give up, admitting that his talent was not with faces, as Edvard Munch had done with hands? But it’s an impressive painting, and one that suggests that Grimshaw never really outgrew his early Pre-Raphaelite infatuation.



Il Pensoroso (1875) also shows an abundance of detail, this time vegetation. Again there is a prominent woman in a dress, but both her face and her dress are “out of focus.” Instead the eye goes to the overwhelmingly detailed vegetation. I’m sure a horticulturist could name every one of the plants, even those in the background. The structure of this painting is interesting as the straight lines of the glasshouse contrast effectively with the non-linear shapes of the plants. White is used effectively to offset the dominant green.



 Golden Light (1893) is one of the many suburban scenes that Grimshaw produced. Painted in the last year of his life, it shows a very different style that has hints of Impressionism but still has aspects of his photographic style. The wall on the left is particularly brilliant as he conveys precision without detail. His delight in the effects of light is evident here. His trees, which he habitually painted without foliage, are a fine balance to the straight lines of the road and walls. And the reds, browns and yellows evoke autumn. Especially appealing is his depiction of the autumn haze at the end of the road and of the large Victorian house.



 Study of Beeches (1872) shows Grimshaw’s mastery with trees. To focus on the shapes of the trunks and branches, he has chosen to virtually eliminate colour. As well, the light is poor so that there is a feeling of winter and low hazy sunlight. Grimshaw clearly reveled in the shape of beech trees, giving both close-up and distant views. He has the foreground slope one way and the background the other. The effect is to focus the eye across the river at first. Then the eye pulls back to enjoy the complexity of the beech limbs. An unusual painting.



 Liverpool from Wapping (c. 1875) is one of his best night scenes, though it appears to be early evening. It has atmosphere—unlike Dulce Domum and Il Pensoroso. The damp air and the wetness of the road and pavement are almost palpable. Again Grimshaw makes use of light, this time the artificial light from the shop fronts. Photographic technique is used to show the near buildings in focus and the more distant ones out of focus. Though meager, the ship masts balance the buildings on the right. The technique here is quite different from many of his more realistic paintings.






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