Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Unvarnished oil on card
  • 21 ⅝ × 17 ⅛ inches · 550 × 435 mm
  • In its original frame
    Painted in 1872

Collections

  • Private collection, UK; 
  • Bonhams, 19th Century and British Impressionist Art, 27th September 2023, lot. 25;
  • Lowell Libson and Jonny Yarker Ltd.

This other-worldly nocturnal landscape was made by John Atkinson Grimshaw towards the beginning of his career. Capturing the eerie light of a full moon on a heavily frosted winter scene, Grimshaw revels in the intricate patterns formed by the bare trees in the silvery light, the play of their shadows and of tracks left in the frosted lane by carts. The painting is close in composition and subject-matter to another 1872 oil by Grimshaw, Tree Shadows on the Park Wall, Roundhay Park (Leeds City Art Galleries), this has led Alexander Robertson to suggest that the present work may relate to Grimshaw’s commission to paint three works of Roundhay Park. The Roundhay estate, consisting of some 700 acres on the north-eastern boundary of Leeds was put up for sale in 1871, it required an Act of Parliament for the Corporation of Leeds to acquire the land for use as a public recreation ground. Grimshaw was commissioned to paint three works to show the beauty of the park to parliamentarians, in an unusual move, Grimshaw took the decision to paint the park at night, producing exquisitely worked nocturns which have a similar palette and finish to the present work.[1] Preserved in outstanding condition, the present painting is a recent rediscovery and offers a fascinating perspective on Grimshaw’s early career.

John Atkinson Grimshaw
Tree Shadows on the Park Wall, Roundhay, Leeds
Oil on wood
20 ¾ x 17 ¾ inches; 527 x 451 mm
1872
Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds Museums and Galleries

John Atkinson Grimshaw was born in Leeds to David Grimshaw, a policeman and his wife, Mary Atkinson, the third son of six children. Little is known of his early education, but by 1853 Grimshaw had obtained a position as a clerk with the Great Northern Railway Company. He had begun to paint by the late 1850s but crucially appears to have received no formal training as an artist. In 1861 Grimshaw gave up his job on the railways to paint full time. His earliest works, intensely observed and meticulously composed still lives, show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. Grimshaw then made a series of Ruskinian nature studies and luminous landscapes in the manner of the Leeds-based painter John William Inchbold. Working in the wake of the publication of the first volumes of Modern Painters, Grimshaw took Ruskin’s rallying call to ‘go to nature in all singleness of heart… rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing’ seriously.[2] Throughout the 1860s Grimshaw’s sun drenched landscapes, such as his 1865 The Bowder Stone, Borrowdale, now in the Tate Gallery, London, gave way to more dramatic, crepuscular effects, such as Sunset from Chilworth Common, Hampshire of 1868.

In 1870 Grimshaw settled with his wife and family at Old Hall, Knostrop, a seventeenth-century stone-built manor house two miles east of Leeds town centre. The romantic appeal of the old house inflected many of the works Grimshaw produced in the ensuing decade. Sunset and sunrise were finally transplanted by moonlight and Grimshaw began to explore the distinctive visual effects of painting landscapes by night. It was also at this date that Grimshaw began his highly lucrative relationship with Agnew’s the art dealing firm based in Manchester and London. The Agnew’s stock books reveal that Grimshaw regularly sent groups of paintings to the gallery, where they were rapidly acquired, frequently by the firm’s newly wealthy clients from the industrial north. For example, in November 1872 Agnew’s received five works from Grimshaw, these included a painting entitled Nearing Home measuring 22 x 18 inches. The painting which is similar in style and composition to the present work and of identical size was acquired barely a week after its arrival in London by the Manchester based collector Edmund Crompton Potter for £94.10s.[3]

Whilst the present painting cannot be securely identified with any of the works Grimshaw sent to Agnew’s in 1872, the generic titles he gave his paintings mean that it may well be amongst those sold by the dealership. The painting is closely related to two other compositions produced in 1872, most closely Tree Shadows on the Park Wall, Roundhay Park, Leeds which is of precisely the same size and similarly painted on card. Made to promote the Act of Parliament needed for Leeds town council to acquire the Roundhay estate, the painting shows a single figure receding along a moonlit lane, bound on one side by the park wall. In common with the other Roundhay paintings, Grimshaw shows a landscape animated by moonlight. In the case of our painting, the moon is not shown, but the strong effect of light falling from the right gives the impression that it is a full moon. Grimshaw revels in tracing the complex silhouettes of the leafless trees, repeating the patterns on the icy ground. This fascination with the complex structure of winter trees perhaps points to Grimshaw’s documented interest in photography, a comparison amplified by the truncated view of the trees in the foreground and the dematerialised treatment of the line of trees in the background. It is precisely these compositional qualities that are found in the photographic studies of winter trees made by W. H Nicholl and Charles Conway in the 1850s.[4] The interlaced branches of winter trees also act as a powerful platform for Grimshaw’s singular technique. The present painting is built up of complex layers of dense glazes, with a surprising colour range, the moonlight on the icy lane shown as an almost luminous green. In the minuteness of technique Grimshaw reveals the twin contemporary influences of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters, such as Inchbold and the fashionable London-based painters, Jacques Joseph Tissot and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

This remarkable painting is an important early work made when Grimshaw was at the beginning of his most successful decade. It acts as a summation of his successful commercial formula, capturing a solitary figure on a deserted road, Grimshaw delights in his virtuosic ability to depict the lattice of bare trees in the strange half-light of the full moon. In this way, Grimshaw’s work sits within a powerful European tradition of the lone traveller at night set amidst the skeletal branches of leafless trees. Despite his masterful evocation of these universal motifs of romantism, Grimshaw remains under-studied and under-represented in institutional collections outside Great Britain. This may, in part, be a result of the fact that Grimshaw was based for much of his professional career in Leeds, with many of his clients based away from London; Grimshaw’s paintings, with their meticulous finish and luminous light effects, appealed to the newly wealthy collectors of the industrial north and midlands. This geographical bias was underscored by the fact that he was essentially self-taught and therefore not associated with any school or movement.

W. H. Nicholl
Windsor Park, Deer Feeding
Albumen silver print
5 ⅞ x 8 ¼ inches; 150 x 209 mm
1850s
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1963
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 63.606.1.26

References

  1. Alexander Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, Oxford, 1988, pp.35-39. 
  2. Eds. E. T. Cooke and Alexander Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, London, 1904, vol.XII, p.339. 
  3. London, National Gallery Archive, Agnew’s Stock Book, NGA27/1/1/4. Nearing Home was sold at Christie’s, London, 13th December 2017, lot.61. Potter, who had championed the mechanisation of printing calico, formed a major collection of works by Briton Rivière and David Cox, amongst others, was dispersed at Christie’s 22nd March 1884.
  4. Diane Waggoner, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875, exh. cat. Washington (National Gallery of Art), 2011, pp.60-91.