Andrew Lambirth

Melancholic visions

At the less than enticing Guildhall Art Gallery, a purpose-built museum that manages immediately to depress the spirits by its utterly unsympathetic design, is a major exhibition of John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–93), the celebrated Victorian painter of moonlight. The show is the brainchild of Jane Sellars, director of the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, where it was on view before coming to London. I wish I’d had the time and energy to see it in Harrogate, where I’m sure it looked entirely at home in the very particular spaces of the Mercer. Exhibiting in the Guildhall is an uphill battle with the architecture. Even Grimshaw, chock-full of atmosphere and drama, has a hard time of it here.

At the age of 24, Grimshaw struck out on his own to be a painter, leaving his secure job as a clerk with the Great Northern Railway in Leeds, despite parental disapproval. He was very much a self-made man, that Victorian model, and taught himself how to paint by following the examples available to him. He was particularly influenced by another Leeds painter, John William Inchbold, an adherent of the new Pre-Raphaelite mode of painting. Actually, Grimshaw’s Pre-Raphaelite pictures are not at all bad, and though I don’t much go for imitations of Birds’ Nest Hunt, Grimshaw’s meticulously detailed early landscapes are not without appeal. Reproduction does not give the extraordinary, even hallucinogenic, technicolour quality of ‘Nab Scar, the Lake District’ (1864), with its foreground saturated hues.

Within a few years, he was discovering his own subjects, as can be seen in ‘On the Tees, near Barnard Castle’, a watercolour nocturne from c.1868, with a wonderful stippled sky and subtle modulations of colour across the centre. From 1869 comes a tour-de-force of woodland observation, ‘Autumn Glory: The Old Mill’, a painting with at least two of Grimshaw’s mature characteristics — the intricate tracery of boughs as seen against buildings (or sky), and the golden season of autumn.

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