John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)Around 1863 the young artist John Atkinson Grimshaw came with his wife Fanny to live in Cliff Road, Headingley, a quiet lane leading up to Woodhouse Ridge, away from the dirty, smoky town. Here, in their charming new villa with its long back garden, they could enjoy walks along the Ridge to the beautiful Meanwood valley and on to Adel woods, where they collected wild flowers, mosses, birds’ eggs to bring home for him to paint. Nearby they could wander the quiet lanes and ginnels of Headingley Hill, with its grand mansions, high stone walls, and tall trees – scenes to which he would often return in his later paintings.

The move marked his growing success as a full-time artist, and an escape from his early life. He was born in Leeds in 1836, in Back Park Street, a narrow lane of cottages and warehouses, the first of the six children of David and Mary Grimshaw. His father had lost his work in the cloth trade and moved from job to job, taking his growing family first to Sheffield then Norwich, where John Atkinson went to school – his only education. When he was 12 the family returned to Leeds, to the poor area of the Leylands, where his mother ran a small corner shop while his father found work with the newly-arrived Midland Railway. By age 14 John Atkinson had a job there too as a clerk, but he had begun to paint in his spare time. His strict Baptist parents disapproved –and threw his paints in the fire. He persevered, self-taught, and his work won admiration, particularly from one of the Leeds art dealers who took him under his wing and fostered his talent.

His life changed dramatically when his cousin Fanny came to visit. Fanny (Frances Theodosia Hubbarde) was travelled and educated, the daughter of a successful journalist. They married in 1857 when he was 21, making their home in one of the new close-packed terraces of Wortley. Their first years together were overshadowed by the death of three of their four babies, and the illness of their fourth child, but she supported his artistic aspirations. John Atkinson still had his clerical job, but his paintings were beginning to sell. So, in 1861, when he was just 25, he made the daring decision to give up his paid work and devote himself to painting.

He prospered. His pictures, strongly influenced at this stage by the Pre-Raphaelites, attracted some wealthy patrons, enabling him to move from the grey streets of Wortley to semi-rural Headingley. Over the next years he visited the Lakes and the coast and extended his range of subjects and techniques, painting his first keynote moonlight scene (Whitby Harbour) in 1867. His work went on show in many of the town’s galleries. By 1870 he felt secure enough to move on, renting the romantic, seventeenth century Knostrop Hall (now demolished), featured in many of his paintings. He filled it with beautiful objects, and entertained his artistic and theatrical friends there. It remained his home for the rest of his life, though for a time he had a second home in Scarborough, the unique, dramatic ‘Castle-by-the Sea’.

By the 1870s he had become Leeds’ favourite homegrown artist, his new paintings eagerly awaited and enthusiastically reviewed. When the purchase of Roundhay Park was in question he exhibited three moonlight scenes of the Park which he said he had been commissioned to paint; they were lavishly praised in the press (and remain favourites today). He was acknowledged as the master of poetic moonlight and night effects, transforming the familiar streets of Leeds into something mysterious, romantic and beautiful – Boar Lane, Park Row, the suburban lanes of Roundhay and Headingley. All this had great appeal for the new moneyed middle-class of Leeds. His reputation spread to London, where he exhibited at the Royal Academy and for a time had his own studio.

But life had its dark side for him and Fanny. Of their sixteen children only six survived into adulthood. He ran into deep financial problems around 1880 and the bailiffs moved in. He was under constant pressure to paint and sell his pictures to make ends meet. The quality suffered, though he still produced some strikingly original work. Then suddenly, in 1893, he was taken ill with liver cancer and died, aged only 57. He was painting till the end. Everything had to be sold to pay his debts.

As tastes changed in the 1900s his work fell out of fashion and could be picked up for a song, but now he is a favourite again – his moonlit lanes, his dark, glowing town and dock scenes, his brilliant domestic interiors, all poetic, nostalgic reminders of a lost world.

Eveleigh Bradford

October 2016