Liverpool Quay by Moonlight illuminates night time in the industrial age.
Self-taught painter Atkinson Grimshaw was interested in all sources of light. His unique style is flooded with moonlight, dampened light from gas lit streets and the golden glow of shop windows in the night.
Working as a railway clerk until 1861, when at the age of 24 he quit to pursue a career in art – much to the dismay of both parents (his mother is rumoured to have thrown away all his paintings at one point).
Grimshaw found modest fame and fortune during his lifetime in England. Albeit – never running with the Royal Academy crowd in London, his limited audience and patrons were loyal; allowing him to live comfortably, paint fulltime and import a beautiful model, Agnes Leefe, to live at his family home – much to the disappointment of his wife (and cousin) Frances Hubbard.
Grimshaw’s early paintings of birds, blossoms and fruit adopted the vivid detail, accurate colours and natural lighting of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, by 1870 he consciously abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite palette for an ethereal elicitation of light, atmosphere and shadows – his moonlight paintings
Liverpool Quay by Moonlight isn’t a comment on any specific evil of the metropolis; it is a study of light. The way the light reflects on surfaces and interacts with the town, the gas lamps lining the street involuntarily comment on the moon. The greenish glow of moonlight filtering in through the smoke and fog creates an unexplained air of mystery – something imminent lurking in the shadows. Grimshaw’s stark realism conveys the damp chill in the air. Flaxen streams of light from shop fronts irradiate the fog hanging heavily on dewy streets. His paintbrush works like a camera – capturing every insignificant detail.
Very little is known about Atkinson Grimshaw, he left behind no diaries, sketchbooks or letters for historians. It wasn’t until Victorian painting came back into favour in the 1960s that his work became recognised and widely collected.
Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887, courtesy Tate Britain
Helen D. Cogswell