Park Row, Leeds, 1882 (oil on canvas) by Grimshaw, John Atkinson (1836-93). View larger image of Park Row, Leeds
© Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery) U.K./ The Bridgeman Art Library
Grimshaw was a self-taught artist who worked in the North of England in the second half of the nineteenth century. He defied his strictly religious parents and left a good job with the railway to become an artist, and rapidly made a name for himself as a painter.
His early works were Pre Raphaelite style landscapes. The Lake District was a favourite early source of inspiration, producing such early masterpieces as Blea Tarn, First Light, 1865 (Private Collection), and The Bowder Stone, Borrowdale, c.1865, now in the Tate Gallery.
He loved Yorkshire, in particular the beauties of Wharfedale, from classically picturesque subjects such as Bolton Abbey, to the public parks and woods around Leeds. One of the most compelling aspects of Grimshaw’s painting is his ability to evoke a particular atmosphere, often of melancholy. He painted many pictures where the main subject is an old building surrounded by trees. There is not a figure in sight, yet there is a palpable presence in the painting.
Later Grimshaw created many interpretations of the Victorian city and the new urban experience of its inhabitants. Grimshaw enjoyed considerable success in his career, and took his brood of children to live in some splendour at Knostrop Hall, a large old rented house in Leeds, with a spell of several years spent in similar style living in Scarborough.
He worked prolifically and was constantly on the lookout to find ways of making money in order to support his large family. He was not afraid to experiment, making theatrical fairy paintings and allegorical portraits of fashionable women.
At the end of his life, Grimshaw was more preoccupied than ever with questions of colour, tone and light. He produced a series of tiny, subtly toned oil paintings that captured the extraordinary light of sun, snow and mist on the beach.
Grimshaw died of liver disease at the age of 57. The local paper marked his passing, ‘By the death of Mr Atkinson Grimshaw, of Knostrop Old Hall, yesterday morning, a Leeds artist of very great ability has passed away. He may be regarded as self-taught in all that gave character and distinction to his art. His methods, treatment and colouring were quite unlike anything in ordinary practice. Originality stamped his work from the first, and some of the effects which, early in his career, were successfully attempted, excited considerable controversy among contemporary artists. They showed no marks of handling or brushwork, and not a few artists were doubtful whether they could be accepted as paintings at all.’
The exhibition included paintings and drawings by Grimshaw’s artistically talented sons and daughter. Newly discovered family photographs, lent by descendants and private and public owners, reveal the private side of the artist’s life: his tenderness towards his children, his love of nature and his sense of fun.