Victorian Painter goes on display at Mercer Gallery in Harrogate

23 April 2011

The first major exhibition in over thirty years, devoted to Victorian artist John Atkinson Grimshaw, one of the most intriguing painters of his day, has gone on display at the Mercer Art Gallery.

The show also aims to reveal more about the artist’s fascinating private life, uncovering new material about his family history. Curator Jane Sellars has had access to revealing new biographical material, including previously unseen early photographs of Grimshaw, of his wife and occasional model, Theodosia, and their young children.

Boar Lane, Leeds, 1881 (oil on canvas)
Boar Lane, Leeds, 1881 (oil on canvas) by Grimshaw


Grimshaw defied his strictly religious parents to become an artist, and rapidly made a name for himself as a painter. He enjoyed considerable success in his career, and took his large brood to live in stately rented splendour at old Knostrop Hall in Leeds, with a spell of several years spent in similar style living in Scarborough. He worked prolifically and gathered to him a group of dedicated patrons and collectors.

As with all Victorian art, in the twentieth century Grimshaw’s paintings went completely out of favour, only to enjoy a remarkable renaissance that started about forty years ago and continues today to push him near the top of the ranks of most desired Victorian artists. Now there is a whole new 21st century audience for Grimshaw’s evocative moonlit scenes.

For the greater part of his career, from the 1870s until the end of his life, Atkinson Grimshaw explored the effects of mist and moonlight and the dying light of an autumn afternoon, The Mercer Art Gallery’s Silver Moonlight, 1880, is a classic of its kind.

The exhibition charts Grimshaw’s career, from his early Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the 1860s, where the principal subject matter was the landscape, to the series of tiny, subtly toned oil paintings produced at the end of his life that captured the extraordinary light of sun, snow and mist on the beach, small symphonies in green and grey that link him forever with his friend and close contemporary, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

The exhibition brings together over fifty major paintings from public and private collections, including Leeds Art Gallery, which possesses the biggest collection of the artist’s work in public ownership and has lent generously, Tate Britain, Cartwright Hall, Bradford, Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, Scarborough, Halifax, Harrogate, Hull, Preston and Wakefield galleries.

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a self-taught artist who worked in the North of England in the second half of the nineteenth century. He defied his strictly religious parents to become an artist, and rapidly made a name for himself as a painter; first of all for Pre Raphaelite landscape and then for his interpretation of the Victorian city and the new urban experience of its inhabitants. He was not afraid to experiment, making theatrical fairy paintings and allegorical portraits of women who could just as easily have stepped out of a painting by the fashionable French painter, Tissot.

Park Row, Leeds, 1882 (oil on canvas) by Grimshaw
Park Row, Leeds, 1882 (oil on canvas) by Grimshaw


Jane Sellars, curator of the show comments:

“The last major show of Grimshaw’s work was more than thirty years ago, and that exhibition brought a new popularity for his paintings that has continued to grow ever since. The Grimshaw pictures in the Harrogate collection are the best-loved works that we have, so I thought the time was right for another look at this intriguing Yorkshire painter. Grimshaw’s life history has always been a shrouded in a little mystery, but for this show we have had access to new biographical material which will cast new light on the artist’s story.’

To accompany the exhibition a new book Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight is being published by Harrogate Borough Council, supported by the Friends of the Mercer Art Gallery and the Mellon Center for British Art. This includes essays from a wide range of experts looking at different aspects of the artist’s life and work, such as Alexander Robertson, leading Grimshaw expert, on the artist’s relationship with the new industrial cities of the late 19th century, and Edwina Ehrman, V&A curator, on fashion and textiles in Grimshaw’s paintings.

John Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight, is at The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, from 16 April to 4 September 2011, and then moves to the Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London, where it will run from 19 September 2011 to 15 January 2012.

The exhibition has been made possible with the generous support of the Friends of the Mercer Art Gallery.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)

Mercer Art Gallery 16 April – 4 September 2011

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