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John Atkinson Grimshaw

Updated on June 29, 2015
John Atkinson Grimshaw. Yorkshire artist.
John Atkinson Grimshaw. Yorkshire artist. | Source

Yorkshire artist Atkinson Grimshaw - fog, fairies and fantasy

Grimshaw is a very English surname originating in the north.

Atkinson too is a name that is common in the northern counties of England. When I was a child, artists - to me - had named like Dali, Picasso or Renoir and it never occurred to me that an artist could be from my own area and have such a mundane name.

Atkinson Grimshaw seemed more like a name that you'd see over the local butcher's shop window.

But yet this artist is now renown for his fabulous townscapes and the astonishing way he portrayed light. The image you see on the left is just a small detail from one of his paintings. It's incredibly atmospheric and immediately invokes the sounds, the smells and the activity on what was an ordinary English street.

He was rather a mysterious figure however. When he died in 1893 he left no papers, no diaries and no notebooks.

The artist


He was born in Leeds in Yorkshire. He had a strict upbringing and he starting his working life as a clerk, employed by the local railway company. From these unlikely beginnings, he taught himself to paint.

Let's look at a close-up

Leeds at night
Leeds at night | Source

The glistening cobblestone are completely entrancing. This is a detail of a street scene of the artist's hometown, Leeds in Yorkshire. See the tramlines and how they are shown to be reflecting the light. The lights are reflected, the lampposts cross the cobblestones which are pierced by the tramlines creating an abstract textural look and at the same time demonstrate realism and atmosphere.


John Atkinson Grimshaw. Fairies.
John Atkinson Grimshaw. Fairies. | Source

Fairies were a popular motif in Victorian times. Indeed, people in those days in England largely believed in the existence of fairies. Indeed, the interest in fairies continued into the 1920s - thanks largely to the Cottingley fairy photographs that were taken in Yorkshire in 1917.

I tend to believe that the artist executed his fairy paintings to pander to the popular tastes of the time. However, these fairies are amongst his most popular works today.

Fairy print

Spirit of the Night Poster by Grimshaw, Fairies, Dreams, Fairy Fantasy
Spirit of the Night Poster by Grimshaw, Fairies, Dreams, Fairy Fantasy

People are still entranced by fairies. Maybe it's because of childhood memories of fairy tales.

Or perhaps we secretly hope that there are fairies around who can weave their magic. This painting is incredibly popular today.


Humber Docks - detail

Humber Docks: John Atkinson Grimshaw
Humber Docks: John Atkinson Grimshaw | Source

This is a detail from a painting of Humber Dock in Hull, Yorkshire. Let me tell you what I find so remarkable about this painting. Take a look at the left of the detail above. Notice that we are told that water is there because of the reflected light.


  • It seemed that he was very much on the road to success. His artwork had enabled him to live in a large house and spend the summer in a rented but palatial summer residence in Scarborough. Towards the end of the 1870s though, he experienced a mysterious financial loss. It's not known to this day what caused this sudden poverty.
  • He was married to his cousin. She gave birth to a total of fifteen children but sadly, only six survived to become adults. This was unfortunately too common in England at that time. Large families were popular though - you'll recall that Queen Victoria had nine children. Several of his children also became painters.
  • He signed his paintings in different ways throughout his career. Some have simply his initial - JAG. He then adopted the habit of using his first two initials and his surname and would also use his full name. Eventually he decided to drop his first name so is now more commonly known as Atkinson Grimshaw.
  • A large body of his work can be seen at the Leeds City Art Gallery.
  • Like many artists facing financial difficulties, he often paid his rent with paintings. In 2009 the family of one of his landlords put a previously unknown painting, which had been in the family since the 1880s, for sale at auction. It sold for £250,000.
  • In 2010,one of the artist's paintings was sold at auction for £185,000. The owners who had put it up for sale had bought it fifty years previously for less than a hundred pounds.
  • He was only fifty seven when he died of cancer in 1893.

See more

Find artwork bargains on eBay

You'd be very unlikely to find an original painting by this artist on eBay but there are some bargain prints and reproductions. Good luck with bargain hunting!

© 2013 Jackie Jackson

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    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Colin323: Doesn't it? It resonates strongly with me and memories of childhood.

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      Colin323 4 years ago

      Very interesting. I've been to Leeds Gallery quite a few times and his work really catches the winter, damp atmosphere of a Northern city; great stuff.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Fiorenza: Thank you Peter - I've enjoyed his work for many years too.

    • Fiorenza profile image

      Fiorenza 4 years ago from UK

      I first came across this artist when an art gallery was selling a print of his in a closing down sale. I actually have six prints of his work now, accumulated over the years, some street/dock scenes and some the atmospheric moonlit lanes. Nice to see this article about him.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @JohnTannahill: Don't they? You should see them in the flesh (there are several in Leeds Gallery if you're ever there) because the internet can't do them justice at all. If you get a chance to see any, you'll certainly get that nostalgia feeling.

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 4 years ago from Somewhere in England

      Forget the fairies, the street scenes are stunning. I had never heard of John Atkinson Grimshaw before. He should never have dropped the name, John, in my biased opinion. Though I was born in the north of England in the 1960s, those street scenes provoke happy memories of rainy nights and city lights.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Valerie P Davis: What a lovely idea!

    • Valerie P Davis profile image

      Valerie Proctor Davis 4 years ago from Birmingham, Alabama

      Oh, now I want a new edition of all of Dickens, with these illustrations. Perfect!

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      Auriel 4 years ago

      beautiful lens.

    • GeekGirl1 profile image

      GeekGirl1 4 years ago

      very nice lens, informative.

    • PinkstonePictures profile image

      PinkstonePictures 4 years ago from Miami Beach, FL


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      anonymous 4 years ago

      i like it

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      good post on works of art and artsmen Atkinson

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @laurenrich: Thanks so much for visiting!

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      laurenrich 4 years ago

      A very informative lens. It is well organized. Thanks for sharing this wonderful lens.