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  • John Atkinson Grimshaw
    Sep 06, 1836 - Oct 13, 1893
  • Bowder Stone, Borrowdale - John Atkinson Grimshaw was an English Victorian-era artist best known for his nocturnal scenes of urban landscapes. Today, he is considered one of the great painters of the Victorian era, as well as one of the best and most accomplished nightscape and townscape artists of all time. He was called a "remarkable and imaginative painter" by the critic and historian Christopher Wood in Victorian Painting.
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Bowder Stone, Borrowdale
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  • Bowder Stone, Borrowdale

  • John Atkinson Grimshaw
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  • c.1863–8
    Oil on canvas
    Private Collection.

    At the age of twenty five Grimshaw gave up work 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 (1819-1900), stated in the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), that artists should 'go to Nature ? rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing' (E.T.Cook and A.Wedderburn (eds.) The Works of John Ruskin, III, pp.623-4)

    Grimshaw may have become familiar with the work of the Pre-Raphaelites from the private collections of Thomas Plint (1823-61) and Ellen Heaton (1816-94) who both lived in his native Leeds, and who voraciously commissioned paintings from Henry Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and John Everett Millias (1829-96). In addition Grimshaw may have had access to the paintings of John William Inchbold (1830-88) who spent his early years in Leeds before moving to London. There he became acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelites and met Ruskin who encouraged him to paint landscapes in a painstaking technique. The majority of Grimshaw's early landscapes followed Inchbold's example and were painted in a hard-edge manner in brilliant colours.

    The precise date of Bowder Stone, Borrowdale is not known, but it is likely to have been painted during the same period as Grimshaw's other Lake District paintings, including Windermere (1863) and Nab Scar (1864). The precarious position of the rock may have attracted Grimshaw to paint the 2000 ton Bowder Stone, which is approximately thirty feet high, fifty feet across and ninety feet in circumference. The steps leaning against the rock demonstrate its importance as a tourist attraction. The River Derwent, visible behind, winds its way to the mountains of Skiddaw and Saddleback in the distance. Although Grimshaw may have worked outdoors for some of the details of the painting, there is evidence that he relied on photographic sources in an attempt to record the natural world with absolute visual accuracy. It was a common practice for artists at this time to use photographs as an aide-memoire when they returned to their studio. Grimshaw's interest in photography is well documented. Robertson has made a direct comparison between Grimshaw's Nab Scar and a photograph taken by Thomas Ogle of Penrith, a commercial photographer working in the area (Robertson, p.111). This photograph is in an album that belonged to Grimshaw now held at Leeds City Art Gallery. Robertson rightly asserts that Bowder Stone, Borrowdale was 'almost certainly based on a photographic source' which, he continues, contributed to the 'frozen quality, an almost "airless moment of time"' characteristic of his paintings from this period (Robertson, p.22).

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Other paintings by John Atkinson Grimshaw:

Bonchurch die Isle of Wight
Bonchurch die Isle of Wight
Bonchurch, Ventnor, Isle of Wight
Bonchurch, Ventnor, Isle of Wight
Calm Waters, Scarborough
Calm Waters, Scarborough
John Atkinson GrimshawJohn Atkinson Grimshaw was a Leeds painter of landscapes, town views and dockyards, especially at sunset or by moonlight. His most frequent subjects were towns and dockyards in London, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, Scarborough and Whitby.

The subject matter of Grimshaw’s paintings was innovative. Night scenes, lit by moonlight, reflected on wet cobbled streets where horse-drawn traffic moved, wraithlike, through the mists; dockyard scenes with the spiky outlines of the ships’ masts rearing up against a darkening sky, hansom cabs and people scurrying through rain swept streets lit by a golden flow from the shop windows; rural lanes flanked by sad, leafless trees – it was from such unlikely subjects as these that Grimshaw extracted his unique form of poetry.

The son of an ex-policeman, Grimshaw began painting whilst he was working as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway and encountered great opposition from his parents. He painted mostly for private patrons and by 1870 he was successful enough to rent Knostrop Old Hall where many of his paintings now hang.

Grimshaw's landscapes are permeated with photographic vision, with their mists, the stencilling of branches or masts against a moonlit sky, the reflections of light on water and dark, smudgy figures that seem like shapes that have moved on a time-exposed photograph. He managed to sustain a deeply poetic imagination until the end of his life. His scenes of urban and rural lanes, and the nocturnal views of Greenock and Liverpool, are a powerfully evocative Victorian extension of the “moonlight Pether” tradition.

The artist exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1874 and 1886 and also at the Grosvenor Gallery.