John Atkinson Grimshaw

Liverpool Docks

Oil on canvas: 20(h) x 30(w) in /

50.8(h) x 76.2(w) cm

Signed lower left: Atkinson Grimshaw

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BS 155



 1836 – Leeds – 1893


Liverpool Docks


Signed, lower left: Atkinson Grimshaw

Oil on canvas: 20 x 30 in / 50.8 x 73.7 cm

Frame size: 25 ¾ x 35 ¾ in / 65.4 x 90.8 cm


Painted circa 1885



Richard Green, London, 1980

Private Collection, UK



This magnificent dock scene is a representation of Salthouse Dock, looking north along Strand Street in Liverpool. Originally known as South Dock, it was later renamed in the 1780s due to the proliferation of docks and its proximity to John Blackburne’s salt works in Salthouse Lane. The large classical portico supported by columns on the right hand side of the street is the Custom House, designed by John Foster and built between 1828-39 on the site of the Old Dock. Damaged by fire bombs during the Second World War, the shell of this historic building was later controversially demolished. The structures on the left are some of the quayside transit sheds that were found all through the dock estate.


At this period Liverpool was one of the great ports of Victorian Britain, embodying trade and overseas expansion. The appeal of this painting to collectors of the day was not just the contemporary element of trade, but the transformation of a probably drab and dirty street into a painting of mysterious depths where everything is enfolded by a blanket of twilight gloom. 


Grimshaw exhibited another version of this setting entitled Salthouse Dock, Liverpool at the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1885 (no. 575). The review in The Art Journal commended the painting for its clever lighting effects seen in the ‘wet dark streets along which the gas lamps are dimly flickering, and the tall masts of the shipping just visible against the cloud-driven sky, there is a feeling which invests the subject with something akin to poetry’ (The Art Journal, July 1885, pp. 225-226).



We are grateful to Ian Murphy, Curator of Maritime History and John Winrow, Assistant Curator, at the National Museums Liverpool for their assistance with the cataloguing of this work.





The docksides of Liverpool were one of Grimshaw’s favourite locations to paint his distinctive nocturnal townscapes, especially the Salthouse Docks and the Custom House. Although Liverpool was the setting for innumerable dockside scenes, Grimshaw would also depict the streets of Glasgow, Hull, Clydeside and Gloucester. The night scenes that he created during this period were extremely popular. Grimshaw managed to breathe romance into these inner-city landscapes whilst capturing the aesthetic of modern, industrial life. Moonlight was as important a feature to the paintings as the masts of the ships rising from the dockside itself. ‘Grimshaw was supremely competent in the technique of representing moonlight shining through cloud by the use of soft glazes over patches of dense paint … Whistler is said to have acknowledged him as the inventor of the ‘Nocturne’. Grimshaw’s moonlight shone on all his subjects from landscapes to city streets.’[1] In Liverpool Docks smog lies thick upon the entire scene and as the moonlight tries to penetrate through the thick cloud it creates a warm blood-orange filter through which to view the night. The light cast out from the shop fronts and gas lights dotted along the street only add to this golden glow and though they are characteristics to be expected of a late Victorian era street they appear understatedly elegant. In this painting Grimshaw exhibits his powers of observation, with the ghost-like masts of ships bobbing on the water beneath them or through the wet cobbles catching the glare from the street lights above them. Liverpool Docks shows a town and its inhabitants in an age of industrial growth ‘that Grimshaw has transformed at night into a scene of mysterious activity’ and wonder.[2]


Alexander Robertson particularly praises Grimshaw’s Liverpool dockside paintings in his monograph on the artist: ‘(these pictures’) quality comes from Grimshaw’s care over his handling of paint. There is no hint of mechanical ruling. The rigging has a rich and smudgy feel, where lines sink into the background surface. The skyline and distance are hazy with enveloping gloom, even the mud on the road is painted with care so that it catches the light from the lamps and shop windows. The usual Grimshaw figures and carriages also seem fresh and spontaneous images. Here the artist has created a rare sense of place and time, a scene of modern life which yet has a quality of distance and mystery.’ [Alexander Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw]




Liverpool Docks, 1892                                                       Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887

Kirklees Museums and Galleries                                      Tate Britain


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.

[1] David Bromfield, Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-93, (The Scholar Press, West Yorkshire, 1979), p.13

[2] Alexander Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, (Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1988), p. 73

VictorianJohn Atkinson Grimshaw