Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight shines on at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London

By Ben Miller | 23 September 2011
A photo of an oil painting of a dimly-lit scene overlooking the Thames and Big Ben
© Leeds Museums and Galleries, Bridgeman Art Library small
Exhibition: Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight, Guildhall Art Gallery, London, until January 15 2012

Born and buried in Leeds, Atkinson Grimshaw earned a hefty income selling his trademark photo-paintings of the city to wealthy local businessmen in the late 19th century.

To this day, he remains as entwined with the north as white roses and cloth caps. And this comprehensive touring display, which features a heap of the dimly lit urban streets he is adored for portraying with such vigour, kicked off at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate last April in a geographical decision to start at home base which proved predictably popular.

So this southern second stop, at a venue underneath the non-stop bustle of the capital’s commercial heart, is as much a spiritual departure as it is a geographical one for the show, despite including some of his typically atmospheric takes on London.

But the secluded gallery space at the Guildhall, which was established seven years before Grimshaw’s death in 1893 and holds a permanent collection of the sort of Pre-Raphaelite pieces which held such sway over him, is an elegant and expansive setting for them, complete with the coup of being able to feature Dulce Domum near the entrance.

Grimshaw’s aspirationally-executed snapshot of the interior of Knostrop Hall, where he lived in the 1870s, took nine years to complete and has been lent exclusively to the Guildhall by a private collector unwilling to send it too far afield.

The scene is strewn with possessions he believed would illuminate his status, from porcelain to peaock feathers and the lace and pearls worn by Agnes Leefe, his regular model, who is perched on an ornate chair in the centre.

It’s a beautiful introduction to a journey which swiftly moves into his lunar landscapes, where the deep sense of mood and place consistently captivates. Reflections on the Thames, which may or may not feature a prostitute looking across the river late at night (her accompanying dog suggests she wasn’t), seems to stretch out for miles and hint at the stories of each colourfully-clothed passer-by, the water flowing past the gas-lit face of Big Ben under a glowing white moon.

Then there are the gloom-swept docks at Glasgow and Hull, where drizzle and sea air saturate the wide streets, the glow comes from the insular lights of shops and pubs, and lamps flicker against the shadows of tall ships and cart-carrying horses.

A central enclosure in the gallery concentrates on Grimshaw’s portrayals of women, placing Leefe as the nude, fluttering Iris, the goddess of autumn, her wings iridescent as the artist plays with colour and light.

You could visit a hundred contemporary art shows and struggle to be as absorbed by the mysterious tales and pioneering playfulness on offer here, but perhaps Grimshaw’s final works are the most surprising.

Sand, Sea, Sky: A Summer Fantasy swaps the shimmer of the harbour for a view of the faraway horizon – no shadows, just faint sand and miniscule figures leading to a flat sea.

Knostrop Cut, Leeds, Sunday Night, which was made during the last year of the artist’s life, reduces factory chimneys until the industrial landscape has a delicacy detached from the vibrancy Grimshaw can summon.

And Snow and Mist: Caprice in Yellow Minor, from the same period, is a pure and lonely snow picture from a hand which never stopped painting.

  • Open 10am-5pm (12pm-4pm Sunday). Admission £5/£3 (free for under-16s).
More pictures from the show:

An image of an oil painting of a mansion in the countryside by moonlight
Silver Moonlight (1880)© Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate
An image of an oil painting of a river at night with a bridge on the horizon
Thames by Moonlight (1884)© Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London
An image of an oil painting of a river flowing under a bridge by a city at night
Whitby, Baiting the Lines (1884)© Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield
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