Atkinson Grimshaw, Tree Shadows in the Park Wall, Roundhay, Leeds, 1872
One final report from Leeds Art Gallery. After the Nicholsons in Art and Life and Stanley Spencer on the stairs we had a look at a small display entitled Nocturne. Built around three of four Atkinson Grimshaws from their permanent collection, the curators have added a handful of paintings that illuminate the way in which artists have been drawn to the crepuscular, or as their guide puts it:
We have traditionally feared the night and wanted to lighten the darkness, but for artists it has also been a zone of uncertainty to capture in painted form.
In the room that houses the display, the ‘moonlights’ painted by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw face on the opposite wall two large paintings by the Turner-prize nominee George Shaw: prettiness and delicacy in a stand-off with edgelands grittiness. Two quite different artists, each of them masters of their chosen technique, whose works are atmospheric, evocative and haunting.
Atkinson Grimshaw, Nightfall Down the Thames, 1880
John Atkinson Grimshaw was born in Leeds and, in 1861 at the age of 24, and opposed by his parents, he abandoned his job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to pursue a career in art. Gradually, Grimshaw developed his own highly distinctive style and subject matter. He became a consummate painter of twilight, night time and autumnal scenes.
Atkinson Grimshaw, Snow and Mist (Caprice in Yellow Minor), 1893
A couple of years ago we saw an excellent retrospective of Grimshaw’s work in Harrogate. One of the most strking works there was Snow and Mist: Caprice in Yellow Minor and I was pleased to encounter it again here. It was painted sometime in the last year of Grimshaw’s life. Both the technique and the title reflect the impact that Whistler had made on the artist. In her memoir, Grimshaw’s daughter Elaine described how just before he became fatally ill with cancer, her father had continued to experiment with light and colour:
Only the winter before, he had experimented with snow pictures; a farmer trailing homewards across his snowy acres: one could feel the cold, the loneliness with his cattle safe and warm in their byres. We must not trample and mar the crystalline beauty of the snowy paths near the house. He even studied the texture of salt, as we piled it higher in the salt-cellars. Then he turned back to his moonlit wet lanes and streets, painting, painting, painting, all day, pictures to sell now and after he was gone.
George Shaw, The End of Time, 2008-9
Both of the George Shaw paintings depict something that is not there. The End of Time and The Next Big Thing depict sites where pubs once stood on the Coventry estate where Shaw grew up. Both are, like the subjects of Grimshaw’s paintings, observed at dusk, when the light has almost gone.
In The End of Time, Shaw has painted the site of the Woodsman, the local pub on the estate. Years earlier, when when it was known as The New Star, his mother worked there and his father had the odd drink there. Shaw himself recalls it as being post-war British modern — ‘which is a longer way of saying it was shite’. He doesn’t know why it was renamed Woodsman but suspects it was a marketing gamble. However it soon caught fire and was later demolished.
Oh so I drank one
or was it four
and when I fell on the floor..
…I drank more
stop me, stop me
stop me if you think that you’ve
heard this one before
I still love you
I still love you
but only slightly
less than I used to
— ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’, The Smiths
Sean O’Hagan writing in 2011 in the Guardian, spoke of ‘the dark undertone of Shaw’s work – time, transience, the inevitability of death’ and noted that his work
Places him very much in a English realist tradition, though one defined more by certain matter-of-fact writers – Larkin, the Orwell of Coming Up for Air and The Road to Wigan Pier – and certain essentially English popular songwriters: vintage Ray Davies, early Paul Weller, Morrissey at his most Mancunian. “I’m a child of the classic pop song and classic sitcom,” he says, chuckling. “I explore within a painterly tradition what usually gets explored though TV drama or music. I’ve thought about this a lot and, like most things in Britain, it’s to do with class. It’s like when I went down to London as a teenager to visit the National Gallery or the Tate: as much as I loved a lot of the work, I never felt it reflected anything of my life back to me. But, when I went into Woolworths and listened to the latest single by the Jam or the Specials, I heard my life reflected back loud and clear, and with all its tensions and uncertainties. There was always this opposition being put up: art was not about my life, whereas pop culture was. And, I didn’t like that opposition, still don’t, even though in a way I still work out of it.
The Next Big Thing is a view of the place where The Hawthorne Tree used to be, the pub which George says he knew ‘too well’. It was in the Hawthorne that George and his father had a drink shortly before his father died. The irony is in the title – as if Shaw, contemplating what might replace the Hawthorne Tree, has decided that the next big thing will be more of the same old crap; that whatever replace the demolished pub will, in the fullness of time, become a ruin itself.
Memory becomes as unreliable as forgetting. Reality lacks the poetry of melting into air. The familiar falls beyond use and lies in the way. I carry within myself an older man. His illness slows me, his dried mouth robs me of speech, his amnesia forces me to live in the today. But after all this I still cannot come to terms with the simple fact that life slips away and time is called everywhere everyday. What some may call a subject or an idea or an answer to the question what is your work about? is only an act of holding on.
– George Shaw
- Atkinson Grimshaw: mystery in the moonlight
- George Shaw: a sense of our time, acute and troubled
- George Shaw: Nothing happens anywhere
- The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty