John Atkinson Grimshaw

There hangs in Leeds City Art Gallery a couple of paintings by one of the city’s most famous Victorian painters, most famous and yet not famous at all, John Atkinson Grimshaw.

There, you’ve never heard of him have you ?

The city art gallery usually has on display at least two or three of his works and yet if only they’d known they could have had almost the full collection in the first half of the 20th century as patrons of his work couldn’t even give his paintings away, literally give them away, in the 1940s twenty of his paintings were sent to auction at Christies where none of them received any bids at all, the Leeds woman who owned them took them home and chopped them up for firewood, in 1912 two of his paintings were sold by the same auction house for the equivalent of £1.50 in todays money and a couple of others for 50p.

And yet during his lifetime he was the artist about town, a man to be feted, a successful Victorian artist who was famed for his night time scenes of the city, a man who had never travelled abroad and knew nothing of the Impressionists and their work with natural light but a man who had created the same impressionist effects in an uncanny synchronicity.

Born into a strict Baptist family his parents made every effort to discourage him from the frivolous practice of art, his paints were burned on the fire, the gas was turned off in the house at night so that he couldn’t see to paint, when he told his father that he wanted to be an artist he was simply told that a job awaited him at a nearby railway yard as a clerk but a few years later after marrying a cousin of the artist T.S.Cooper, he took up his trade as a full time artist and between 1860 and 1870 had found fame and a small fortune.

Enough of a stipend to move to Knostrop Hall, a 17th century grand house by all accounts (its now the City of Leeds sewage works), unfortunately it had 17th century drainage and two bouts of diptheria in the hall left them with three dead children, (they had 15 children in total with eight surviving childhood) – they moved out and went to Scarborough, bought a plot of land just beneath the castle there and built another grand house, now known as The Castle by the Sea.

In later years he suffered a severe financial embarrassment rumoured to have come from the sponsorship of another artist, the family had to sell up in Scarborough and decamp back to the disease ridden Knostrop Hall while he took up a studio in Chelsea to churn out a production line of paintings to wealthy London patrons, during the 1880s he was turning out 50 or so paintings a year and experimenting with photography and over painting photographs, a practice which horrified the Victorian art establishment.

He died penniless in 1893, Knostrop was sold and the family split up, at the time of his death aged 57 the art world had disowned him with many of his critics questioning whether he was an artist at all, 20 years later his paintings were good only for firewood.

One of the largest exhibitions of his work opened yesterday in Harrogate at The Mercer Gallery, free entry, there are two words that I like, I shall be visiting.


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