Oil on canvas: 30(h) x 25(w) in /
76.2(h) x 63.5(w) cm
Signed lower left: Atkinson Grimshaw+; signed and inscribed on the reverse: Old Chelsea / Atkinson Grimshaw / 2
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JOHN ATKINSON GRIMSHAW
1836 – Leeds – 1893
Signed lower left: Atkinson Grimshaw; signed and inscribed on the reverse: Old Chelsea / Atkinson Grimshaw / 2
Oil on canvas: 30 x 25 in / 76.2 x 63.5 cm
Frame size: 41 x 36 in / 104.1 x 91.4 cm
Painted circa 1886
Newton Brothers, Leeds
Private collection, UK, circa 1890/1, then by descent
In this atmospheric London view, Grimshaw portrays the tower of Chelsea Old Church from Cheyne Row, looking westwards along Lordship Place. The row of eighteenth century townhouses which line the street on the left have since been replaced by a mansion block and the Cross Keys public house now appears on Lawrence Street on the right. A modern terrace of houses to its left, with additional elevations, today masks the view of the Old Church tower superbly captured by Grimshaw circa 1886. Adding to the specificity of the scene, Grimshaw includes the recognisable silhouette of a Chelsea Pensioner in long coat and peaked Shalto cap walking with a cane towards the viewer accompanied by a girl holding an umbrella.
Chelsea inspired Grimshaw several times in the 1880s when he first began visiting the capital. Grimshaw is known to have stayed at Anderton’s Hotel, Fleet Street in 1885, but also rented a studio between 1885-87 in Manresa Road, just north of the King’s Road in the heart of Chelsea. Fashionable Trafalgar Studios were also let to artists including Evelyn de Morgan, JJ Shannon, Henri La Thangue, Frank Brangwyn and Philip Wilson Steer, as well as being frequented by literary figures such as Oscar Wilde. Family history records that Grimshaw met and befriended James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), who lived in nearby Tite Street at this time (he died at 72 Cheyne Walk). Alexander Robertson suggests ‘their common love of the river Thames and of night effects generally would certainly have brought them together when Grimshaw took the Chelsea studio in the mid-1880s’ (Alexander Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, Phaidon, London, 2000, p.118.). Chelsea Old Church features in several of Whistler’s depictions of the local skyline including Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, c.1872-5 (Tate) and Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea, c.1884 (Freer/Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC), as well as several etchings from his celebrated Thames set. These daring evocations of impression and tone capturing the London fog and faint lights by the Thames, undoubtedly influenced Grimshaw, who likewise transformed the everyday reality of the Chelsea street with an enveloping sheen of atmosphere, bringing out the poetic and picturesque in the scene. The assured foreground details of the wet, reflective road, a combination of impasted paint and lustrous glaze and the echo of the full bright moon in the warm, artificial light of the clocktower, make Old Chelsea one of the artist’s most successful paintings.
Grimshaw revisited the subject just before his death in An Idyll of Old Chelsea, 1893, a larger version ‘nostalgic in its evocation of the area around Cheyne Walk’ (Mark Bills cited in Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight, ed. J Sellars, exh. cat., The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, 2011, p.85). Though the format and figuration have changed, the location is exactly the same. In his essay on Grimshaw in London, Mark Bills suggests that ‘Grimshaw perhaps made this late painting in a mood of wistful reflection on his time in London, a period in his career when his ambition, as well as financial need, gave him the determination to leave the familiarity of his home city of Leeds and take his chances in the great metropolis’ (ibid, p.85).
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 moonlit sky. During his later life, he became a close friend of James McNeill Whistler who admired his work and admitted: ‘I thought I had invented the Nocturne, until I saw Grimmy’s moonlights’.
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, Grimshaw 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 exhibited five works at the Royal Academy in 1874, 1880, 1885 and 1886. He also exhibited at Sir Coutts Lindsay’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1885.
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 from 1885-87 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 John Atkinson 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 Tate Britain, 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 Centre 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.