Heather Birchall, writing on the Tate Britain website, explains that the twenty-five-year-old Grimshaw quit his job as a railway clerk “and began painting full-time. His career reached its peak in the 1870s when his ethereal paintings of urban streets lit by moonlight were sold in large quantities to wealthy northern industrialists. By contrast, his early work, some of which has only relatively recently come to light, was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite landscape artists” and the instructions of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters(1843), which urged young artists to “go to Nature … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing” (3.623-24). He may have encountered Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the “collections of Thomas Plint (1823-61) and Ellen Heaton (1816-94) who both lived in his native Leeds,” and when he moved to London he met Ruskin, Inchbold, and the Pre-Raphaelites.

According to Susan Casteras, "About 1867 Grimshaw began producing moonlight scenes, and the resulting urban imagery belongs to a pictorial heritage associated with earlier artists like Joseph Wright of Derby and the Pethers. By the 70s he had confined himself almost totally to these moonlight or twilight effects, exchanging his previous Pre-Raphaelite palette for a more muted one. In 1879 a change of fortune saddled him with debts, and he moved from Leeds to London, where family tradition relates that he became friendly with Whistler and perhaps even shared a studio with him. In that decade and in the 80s Grimshaw executed countless paintings of leafy suburban lanes, harbors, or docks, and city streets, some of which, unlike the present example [Salthouse Docks, Liverpool], were imaginary or built up of composite elements. . . .

"The artist's harbor scenes may owe a debt to both J. M. W. Turner and to Whistler, who allegedly acknowledged Grimshaw as an inventor of 'nocturnes' (Alexander Gallery, p. 8). Such images have been termed 'icons of commerce and the city' (Bromfield, p. 15), and they seem to reflect the urban experience of pedestrians and onlookers participating in the mood of reverie generated by the somewhat mysterious illuminations. The imagery of northern industrial towns was a staple in his work, and it was the new middle-class industrialists who both promoted art in the provinces and purchased Grimshaw's canvases. So great was the clamor fo his moonlight representations that 'the demand for a considerable time exceeded the supply' (qtd. Alexander Gallery, p. 4) and the artist thus produced many replicas or variations through the end of his career" (p. 42).



Atkinson Grimshaw, 1863-1893. Exhibition catalogue. Leeds: Alexander Gallery, 1976.

Bromfield, David. Atkinson Grimshaw, 1863-1893. Exhibition catalogue. Leeds, 1979.

Casteras, Susan. The Edmund J. and Suzanne McCormick Collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 1984.

Highly Important Victorian Paintings and Drawings. Catalogue for sale of 24 October 1978. London: Sotheby's Belgravia, 1978. Catalogue number 15.

Ruskin, John. Works. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. Lodnon: Allen & Unwin, 1902-1913.

Last modified 9 July 2018