A remarkable painter who is less widely appreciated than he should be, for many
reasons: little is known of his life; he worked mainly in the North; most of his
paintings are in private collections; and he was unfashionably versatile.
Self-taught, Grimshaw started exhibiting in Leeds in the 1860s with minutely observed still lifes --
from found objects such as bird's nests -- and landscapes painted with at least
Pre-Raphaelite precision, often using photographs to ensure accuracy.
In the 1870s he experimented with a looser
technique, and with classical subjects (in the manner of Alma Tadema), historical subjects (in the
manner of the St John's Wood Clique) and
contemporary ladies (in the manner of Tissot); these last were particularly
successful. But the real breakthrough at that time was the night-time scenes --
the 'moonlights' -- with which he is usually associated today. In the middle of
the decade he took a second house in Scarborough, and there are many paintings
of Yorkshire seascapes at night. But he also travelled to Liverpool and London
in search of material, and diversified yet again into 'literary' subjects.
Around 1880 Grimshaw suffered some unknown
financial crisis, and retrenched: returning to Leeds and boosting his output to
around fifty paintings a year. Certain elements of social realism come into his
paintings around that time, night being a good time to record less respectable
forms of life.
The output of moonlights continued during the 1880s, particularly of street and dockside
scenes, but there were also continuing experiments. He tried painting over
photographs, shocking some modern art historians. He tried much less precise,
almost naïve, pictures, which reflected his friendship with that other
nocturnal creature, Whistler: who, in a rare outbreak of generosity, had ceded
Grimshaw's priority in the 'moonlight' genre. And Grimshaw also tried fairy
painting, especially the various versions of 'Iris', which are popular as posters
It is difficult to know what this innovative and resourceful painter might have
tried next, had he not died of cancer.
Robertson tells pretty much all that is known.
Cartwright Hall Art Gallery
The Guildhall Art Gallery
Harris Museum and Art Gallery
Leeds City Art Gallery
The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery
The Tate Gallery
The Walker Art Gallery
Complete list of pictures