Sunday, 13 November 2011

The exhibition is called Painter of Moonlight.But it could just as well be Painter of the Gloaming.
What I love about Atkinson Grimshaw is that sense of something about to happen.
That Colin and Mary might appear in the Secret Garden of this Yorkshire house.
And I wonder why a woman and child have stopped in this muddy lane in the chilly dusk to gaze at a firelit bedroom window.
Was she cast out by her Victorian father for eloping with a ne'er-do-well who turned out to be married? Or is she a mill girl plucking up courage to confront her employer with his illegitimate child? There is a Wilkie Collins novel in every frame.
These are paintings of gaslit city streets and wet cobbles and snuff shops, of dead bracken and leaf mould ... so evocative that you can almost smell them.

And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us - then this wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure cease to understand, as they ceased to see; and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song - to the artist alone.
(Underlined by the artist in his copy of Whistler's The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Whistler thought that he was the inventor of nocturnes, 'Until I saw Grimmy's moonlight pictures.')

Grimmy's own life was a Wilkie Collins novel waiting to happen. (I'm quite prepared to judge Great Art on its merits alone, but this isn't Great Art and I do love a salacious Victorian story.)
He was an irascible, blustering father, married to his cousin Fanny who gave birth to 16 children although only six of them survived. Three children died of diphtheria in 1874.
Some time in the early 1880s, so his daughter recalled, 'It would be about that time that Pappa, who had been to the theatre, brought home with him a beautiful young woman to live with us and be his model! Poor mamma, careworn by much childbearing and the many griefs they had both shared, was deeply hurt and for the first time in my life, I heard angry voices as I clung terrified on her breast.'

Poor Fanny ... she must have been spitting mad when beautiful Agnes Leefe, with her handspan waist, posed naked as the goddess of autumn. And to add insult to injury, when Agnes died of lung disease in 1890 ... guess who ended up having to nurse her?

Atkinson Grimshaw died when he was only 57. By 1893, he had cancer and a mountain of debts and was painting in a frenzy. He painted all day long, seven days a week, completing picture after picture ... The day came when he could no longer stand at the easel. He crept upstairs to the magnificent Persian brass bed that he had bought, complete with silk hangings, not long before ... Once, in the last few hours, Grimshaw turned to his wife and whispered, 'No sun, no moon - no stars.'

And as no doubt you can tell, I was lapping up every melodramatic Victorian morsel ...
Before I went out into the gloaming and made my way home.


Noelle said...

A most interesting post Mrs. Miniver's daughter!
One feels drawn into the story by the sheer description!
Thanks for sharing,

mary said...

Thank you, Noelle. lt was the perfect exhibition for a November afternoon, especially coming out to see St Paul's Cathedral lit up in the twilight - like another picture.

Cait O'Connor said...

The secind pic has such atmosphere. Great post, you have whetted my appetite.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post! Thank you.

Darlene said...

Ooh, thanks for the link. I enjoyed those paintings so much that I forgot about my morning oatmeal bubbling away! And if I were Fanny there would have had to be a pinch of arsenic added to Atkinson's dinner every now and then.

mary said...

Thanks Cait, and Callmemadam: it was a very enjoyable exhibition should you get the chance to go.

Darlene, I knew you'd like it. And to rub it in even more, it's only around the corner from a branch of Bea's of Bloomsbury - tea and cakes with a view of St Paul's in the twilight. At least, if you crane your neck!