The Last Gleam
Oil on canvas: 20(h) x 30(w) in /
50.8(h) x 76.2(w) cm
Signed and dated lower right: Atkinson Grimshaw 1883+
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JOHN ATKINSON GRIMSHAW
1836 – Leeds – 1893
The Last Gleam
Signed and dated lower right: Atkinson Grimshaw 1883 +
Oil on canvas: 20 x 30 in / 50.8 x 76.2 cm
Frame size: 26 x 36 in / 66 x 91.4 cm
Private Collection UK, 1973, then by family descent
‘But perhaps most appealing to the modern audience is Grimshaw’s depiction of a Victorian world of suburban lanes with half-hidden houses and city streets, docks and fishing ports flooded by moonlight, creating an atmosphere of poetic nostalgia which makes Grimshaw, at his best, unique.’ (Alexander Robertson)
Grimshaw’s depiction of the magical atmosphere that light can create is what ensures his status as one of the masters of Victorian oil painting. The Last Gleam, unlike his moonlit street scenes, has a dusky glow that distinctively marks the season and conjures up ‘the smell of damp leaves in the air, and the bright but chill light of autumn’ with a beautiful naturalism. At the start of the 1880’s Grimshaw was producing the work he has become best known for and the faintly illuminated sky of The Last Gleam is demonstrative of this. In 1883 Grimshaw used the same large half-timbered house numerous times in different settings, making each variation unique. It was a rarity in the Industrial Revolution era for a street to be so utterly deserted and in comparison to the crude labour-intensive environments the factories had created; this painting would have appeared idyllic. With the fallen leaves littering the lane, Grimshaw creates nostalgia for a decaying ‘golden’ age which is further enhanced by the inclusion of the figure wearing eighteenth century costume.
To the left of the lane’s roadside and running parallel to the figure’s path is a long puddle. Grimshaw’s repetition of the palette through a reflective surface is common, as ‘most of the lanes are depicted as just having had a shower of rain, which greatly simplifies the colour scheme’ and allows for the twilight tonality of the sky to reoccur throughout the painting. The outline of the lane is decorated with leafless silhouetted trees, whose branches reach out to touch the golden yellow afternoon sky that glows with the rich golden rays of the setting sun.
The Last Gleam exemplifies Grimshaw’s strong connection to the ideal of the family home, which was a belief of paramount importance in Victorian society. It was thought that Grimshaw shared his ideals with fellow artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler along with their joint affinity to nature. Whistler was even listed as one of Grimshaw’s friends in his Yorkshire Post obituary. An annotated copy of Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies embodies this, in which Grimshaw had marked a famous passage from his Ten O’Clock Lecture – ‘… the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us – then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and master – her son in that he loves her, her master in that he knows her.’
Under the Beeches, John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1892 November Morning, Knostrop Hall, Leeds, John Atkinson
Oil on canvas: 30.5 x 45.8 cm Grimshaw, 1883
Laing Art Gallery Oil on canvas: 61 x 86.4 cm
Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead
JOHN ATKINSON GRIMSHAW
1836 – Leeds – 1893
John Atkinson Grimshaw was a Victorian artist who became famous for his sombre views of the dockyards and his nocturnal scenes of urban lanes with leafless trees silhouetted against the moonlight sky. During his later life, he became a close friend of James McNeill Whistler who admired his work and admitted: ‘I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlight picture.’
Born in Leeds, the son of an ex-policeman, Grimshaw first took up painting while he was employed as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway. He married his cousin Frances Theodosia Hubbarde in 1858 and by 1861; he had abandoned his job in order to devote all his time to becoming an artist. In his early work, John Atkinson Grimshaw was influenced by John Ruskin’s creed of ‘truth to nature’ and adopted the detailed Pre-Raphaelite technique of the Leeds painter, John William Inchbold. He was also fascinated by the relatively new art of photography and may have used a camera obscura in developing his compositions.
Towards 1865, he renounced this painting style. He painted many urban scenes in which moonlight and shadows were the most striking features. The towns and docks that he painted most frequently were Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, Scarborough, Whitby and London. These works have become his best known though he also painted landscapes, portraits, interior scenes, fairy pictures and neo-classical subjects. Grimshaw painted mostly for private patrons. He only exhibited five works at the Royal Academy between 1874 and 1876.
By 1870, Grimshaw had become successful enough to move to Knostrop Old Hall, a seventeenth century mansion about two miles from the centre of Leeds, which featured in many of his paintings. He rented another home near Scarborough which he called ‘The Castle by the Sea’, towards 1876. Grimshaw suffered a serious financial disaster in 1879 and had to leave his house at Scarborough. He moved to London and rented a studio in Chelsea, leaving his family at Knostrop. He returned to Knostrop, where he died in 1893. Several of his children, Arthur Grimshaw (1864-1913), Louis H Grimshaw (1870-1944), Wilfred Grimshaw (1871-1937) and Elaine Grimshaw (1877-1970), became painters.
The work of Grimshaw is represented in the Bradford City Art Gallery, the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, the Gloucester Museum and Art Gallery, the Bankfield Museum, Halifax, the Harrogate Museums and Art Gallery, the Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull, the Huddersfield Art Gallery, Kirklees Metropolitan Council, the Harris Art Gallery, Preston, the Leeds City Art Gallery, the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the Guildhall Art Gallery and the Tate Gallery, London, the Scarborough Art Gallery, the Wakefield Art Gallery and Museums, the Pannett Gallery, Whitby, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest, France, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, the Nelson-Atkins Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, the Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island in the United States, the Shepparton Art Centre, Welsford, Victoria, Australia and the King George VI Art Gallery, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Alexander Robertson, Jane Sellars (ed.), Atkinson Grimshaw Painter of Moonlight, (The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, 2011), p. 23
Alexander Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, (Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1988), p.102
Steve Phillips, Jane Sellars (ed.), Atkinson Grimshaw Painter of Moonlight, The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, 2011, p.145