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Artist that influenced Tim Burton John Atkinson Grimshaw at Richard Green
John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), London Bridge - Night, 1884. Photo: Courtesy Richard Green.

LONDON.- An exhibition of paintings by the renowned 19th Century artist, Atkinson Grimshaw, celebrating the 175th anniversary of his birth, is being held at Richard Green. This event follows the first museum exhibition of Grimshaw’s work for over 30 years held at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, and coincides with that exhibition’s opening at the Guildhall Gallery in the City of London.

The art and life of Atkinson Grimshaw provides a fascinating insight into the culture and history of Victorian England. When film director Tim Burton was making Sweeney Todd (2007), he looked at Grimshaw’s paintings to capture the mood he wanted. Grimshaw’s painting of London Bridge (illustrated) could almost be straight out of the opening sequences of Burton’s film. “He painted 19th century London very much how we saw it,” says Gary Brozenich, who supervised the film’s visual effects. “The paintings have a fantastical quality. His treatment of reflections and the effects of mist and fog are quite beautiful.”

Of strictly non-conformist parentage (his father was a policeman; his mother kept a grocery shop), it was against their wishes that, at the age of 24, Grimshaw left his secure job with the expanding Great Northern Railway to become an artist. One of his earliest works, ‘A Mossy Bank’ (1861), shows the artist, without formal training, betray the influence of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. By 1868, such precisely observed views of nature had evolved into more romantic, atmospheric paintings of which ‘A Moonlight View over Lake Windermere’, is an example, and for which he was to become famous.

Grimshaw found success early on, and in 1870, moved with his young family to live in some style in Knostrop Old Hall, a 17th century mansion near his birthplace in Leeds, which he furnished with exotic artistic props which were to feature in a number of paintings of interiors and garden scenes with fashionably dressed women such as, ‘In the Pleasaunce’, (1875). Sometimes compared to the successful French artist, James Tissot, these paintings also found a ready market with the wealthy industrial middle classes, and in 1876 Grimshaw moved to the magical sounding ‘Castle by the Sea’ in Scarborough, which he named after a poem by Longfellow. Before long he was exhibiting in London at Tooth’s and Agnews.

Behind this brilliant career trajectory, however, lies personal sadness. Grimshaw married his cousin, Fanny, in 1858, but they lost four of their first five children in childbirth or shortly thereafter. In all they had 15 children, and only five survived. As early as 1870, in ‘The Screes, Wasdale’, for instance, which shows a figure of a woman and a single bird, a feeling of melancholy and loneliness appears in his work. This mood recurs in some of his best known, hauntingly beautiful views of autumnal, suburban lanes, often with single figures and looming mansions in the evening half light, and in the moonlit views of the ports of Whitby, Scarborough, Liverpool, Glasgow and, later, London, for which is best known.

Living in an age of relentless industrial expansion, where the harsh reality of poverty and pollution was the price most people paid, Grimshaw tackled the industrial landscape by romanticising it, by shrouding it in shadows and enhancing it with poetic light effects. This is reflected in his personal life. Attracted by the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Longfellow and Tennyson, he not only named his house after a Longfellow poem, but his children after characters in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King,’ evoking another time, another culture.

And, just as much of his art has an air of mystery – few of his suburban mansions are identifiable – so also is Grimshaw’s life. While parts of the jigsaw – some recently discovered early photographs for instance - continue to be assembled, historians have been left with frustratingly little to work on. There was no archive left after his death at the age of 57. Or if there was, it has not survived. And so he remains an enigma.

Perhaps the best known quote to live on is the comment of his contemporary, James McNeil Whistler, celebrated for his nocturnal Thames views, who was reported as saying: “I thought I had invented the nocturne until I discovered Grimmy’s moonlights.”

Having been successful, Grimshaw, it is said, died in poverty, struggling to pay bills. In the 20th century, his art fell into neglect until the general revival in interest in Victorian art in the 1970’s. Richard Green was very much part of that revival, being the leading dealer in Grimshaw’s art for over 30 years. In that time, the market has responded with such enthusiasm that prices have risen from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The exhibition includes loans from private collections, some not seen in public for many years and a strong selection from the gallery’s collection, which are available for sale. Richard Green held their first solo exhibition for the artist in 1990.

Richard Green | Atkinson Grimshaw | aniversary |

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