Time Travel : The Man who Captured Victorian England… With a Paintbrush

stapleton-park-near-pontefract-sun-1877
Stapleton Park near Pontefract, painted in 1877

If a picture says a thousand words this one could tell a novel.

One of the things that makes Grimshaw’s painting so special is the wider storyline it encourages the observer to imagine for themselves – where is this girl going? What are her dreams, her aspirations? Which, if any, of the big houses does she work for? Is she happy? What thoughts occupy her mind as she wanders through the burnished leaves on her way back from the village?

Stapleton Park near Pontefract (1877) is the picture above that first caught my eye in Country Life and inspired me to learn more about the 19th century artist John Atkinson Grimshaw, a man whose paintings so vividly portray the varied industrial and rural landscapes of 19th century England. I decided to pick my favourites and learn more about this amazing artist, who takes you back in time to Victorian England.

Autumn Evening by John Atkinson Grimshaw
Yew Court Scalby on a November night
Yew Court Scalby on a November night
The Old Hall Under Moonlight
The Old Hall Under Moonlight
Lady In A Garden By Moonlight. John Atkinson Grimshaw. Oil On Board, 1882
Lady In A Garden By Moonlight (1882)
Figures in a moonlit lane after rain by John Atkinson Grimshaw
Figures in a moonlit lane after rain

One of the ways the artist attained such realism and texture in his paintings was the use of unconventional and natural materials in his work. For example, Grimshaw was often known to mix sand and other ingredients in with his paint to get the texture he needed.

A Mossy Glen 1864
A Mossy Glen (1864)

Grimshaw’s story as an artist is an impressive one. He rose from a family that were ostensibly against his decision to leave his ‘safe’ job as a clerk on the Great Northern Railway to embark on an uncertain and unknown artist’s career at the age of 24. Yet by 1880, despite suffering a financial crisis, his creative output often totalled as many as 50 paintings a year, most of them for private clients. In fact, Atkinson Grimshaw’s work was so popular that many of his paintings were imitated and forged during his lifetime.

John Atkinson Grimshaw
The man himself
The Great Northern Railway opening in 1850, found on peterboroughimages.co.uk
The Great Northern Railway opening in 1850, found on peterboroughimages.co.uk

Born in Leeds in September 1836, Grimshaw remained for much of his life in the north of England – at Knostrop Old Hall, a family home, progressing to a second home in Scarborough, which he called ‘The Castle by the Sea’ after a favourite poem of his by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (it can be read here). His Scarborough home can still be visited today, and its coastal views inspired many of the seascapes he is now famous for, serving as the perfect study of moonlight on water.

Scarborough Castle and 'The Castle by the Sea'.
Scarborough Castle and ‘The Castle by the Sea’.
Plaque John Atkinson Grimshaw
(c) David Chalmers Photography

Knostrop Old Hall, a 17th century house built by the first MP of Leeds, fell into disrepair and, although it was lived in up until 1959, it was sold for £50 in 1960 and presently demolished. It lives on however in many of the artist’s paintings.

John Atkinson Grimshaw with his daughter Elaine outside front gateway of Knostrop Hall.
John Atkinson Grimshaw with his daughter Elaine outside the front gateway of Knostrop Hall.
Evening at Knostrop Old Hall (1870)
Evening at Knostrop Old Hall (1870)
Knostrop Old Hall in 1949. Image found on Leodis - a photographic archive of Leeds.
Knostrop Old Hall in 1949. Image found on Leodis – a photographic archive of Leeds.
The back garden of Knostrop Old Hall in disrepair, 1949.
The back garden of Knostrop Old Hall in disrepair, 1949.

Amongst other regular spots, John Atkinson Grimshaw’s most frequented docks to paint by were those in Whitby, Glasgow, London, Leeds and Liverpool. I have personal connections to three of these cities – Whitby, Leeds, and London – and I think one of the reasons these pictures are so fascinating for me is that they really do offer a portrait of light and life as it was at that time – misty, murky, and, if not overcast, bathed in moonlight.

Liverpool from Wapping (1875)
Liverpool from Wapping (1875)
Whitby Harbour by Moonlight by John Atkinson Grimshaw.
Whitby Harbour by Moonlight

My family and I love Whitby – you can see whales in the Spring if you go out on the boats and it has the best second-hand bookshops!

A lane in Headingley, Leeds (1881)
A lane in Headingley, Leeds (1881)

Headingley is where my sister used to live.

Old Chelsea by John Atkinson Grimshaw.
Old Chelsea

‘Old Chelsea’ still looks like this today! I recommend The Cross Keys pub – they do great seafood and champagne!

The beautiful paintings of Victorian England’s industrial and rural landscapes that are left to us today are the product of both natural talent and a great deal of hard work. Although Grimshaw was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite painters, he was completely self-taught and went on to become one of the best-loved and varied artists of the Victorian period, as can be seen by his female studies and fairy personifications of nature and the seasons below.

Spirit of the Night (1879)
Spirit of the Night 
Queen of the Lillies
Queen of the Lillies 

The above is my favourite painting.

Dame Autumn hath a mournful face 1871
Dame Autumn hath a mournful face (1871)

Isn’t the above so forward-thinking of Victorian art?

Day Dreams by John Atkinson Grimshaw.
Day Dreams 

Prints of his works are still widely circulated today for everyone to enjoy. In fact, we have just bought our very own framed print, and you can buy more here.

Screen shot 2016-02-25 at 15.29.43

 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of John Atkinson Grimshaw. Sweet dreams.

Iris by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

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