Friday, 23 November 2012

The Thames by Moonlight with Southwark Bridge by Atkinson Grimshaw 1884

Something I prepared earlier and forgot to post!
The Thames by Moonlight with Southwark Bridge - Atkinson Grimshaw 1884
Kind Permission of  Guildhall Art Gallery

The City of London Corporation own an interesting collection often overlooked by the public. It is deliberately relevant to the City alone, with a few exceptions, and continues the strong sense of tradition and pride within the Square Mile. Also many portraits of the good, and great and the not so good and great. Plus one of the largest paintings in the British Isles, whereby the Richard Gilbert Scott Guildhall Gallery was designed to house it. Extraordinary paintings that show the Guildhall before the damage caused by WWII; spot the difference is a great game we play while studying them. Another pastime for some is to recall  the names of ALL the City church spires in the paintings - I don't play this one, it smacks of showing off!  Plus I'd rather study the painting for its painterly merits and its meaning at the time and how it fits in to the here and now.

One such painting, not necessarily a favourite, but worthy of considerable attention is the painting above.  Not well hung, it is in a narrow space in the London Gallery (downstairs) wedged between a wall and the staircase. Actually it is best viewed from the stairs, but for H&S reasons I should not encourage you to do so.

Why do I like looking at it?  In the time it was painted the River Thames was still the hub of industry for the Empire, plenty of river traffic such as the sprit sail sailing boats and lighters, the group to the left, oft seen in other views. The London sky was full of smoke from home fires and industrial chimneys, I think it is this smoggy air that gives this particular evening the luminescence plus the full moon peeking through the patchy cloud. One feels that it may have been raining very hard all day and as evening draws in it has stopped, but left the streets glistening and the lamps on the bridge brighter from the reflection of river and pavement. Of course Atkinson Grimshaw was famous for his moonlight paintings and reflections of streetlights after rain.  Whistler felt he was in the forefront of this 'genre' until he saw Grimshaw's work.

It is unlikely this painting was sketched in situ as Grimshaw used a completely different technique from the acceptable process of the time. He used photographs!

John Atkinson Grimshaw, born in Leeds in 1836 was the son of a policeman and in his youth worked for the Great Northern Railway. It was against his parents wishes that he abandoned his steady job to become an artist, so much so, it is said his mother refused to let him have a fire in his room while he worked, to dissaude him.
It is doubtful he could afford formal training and in order to make money from his art he need to learn fast. At the time the painting directly from nature was the done thing, as recommended by the critic John Ruskin. However, Grimshaw had no time to lose, so he relied on photographs to overcome his lack of skill as a draughtsman and learn how to deal with perspective.
"By projecting a photograph or a lantern slide on to a blank canvas, Grimshaw was able to create an instant composition, the outlines of which he could go over in pencil. He then applied his lurid colours with tiny brushes to create a glossy finish, free from visible evidence of his handling of paint."  (Rob Green - The Telegraph 2011).


  1. I love this painting, one of my favourites in the gallery. It captures a rare moment of calm in what is obviously a busy working river. Atkinson Grimshaw was a master of painting moonlight. Well worth taking a trip to Leeds and Scarborough to see his paintings in the galleries there if you are a fan.

    1. A trip to Leeds to see more of Atkinson Grimshaw is on my 'To Do List' for 2013.