Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings draw fans from around the world

by Jeannie Swales

Although born in Leeds, artist John Atkinson Grimshaw loved Scarborough so much that in 1876 he moved here.

He’d been living in his home city, but three of his children had died from diphtheria, so the move may have been prompted by concern for the health of his other children.

He rented a house by the castle, and named it ‘Castle-by-the-sea’, from the Longfellow poem of the same name.

On September 8, 1876, the Spa burned down. It’s tempting to imagine the Grimshaws, that early autumn evening, walking out of their front door and watching the dramatic events unfold across the bay.

Shortly afterwards Grimshaw painted one of the glorious moonlit pictures for which he is so justly celebrated – Sic transit gloria mundi (Thus passes the glory of the world).

It’s one of six Grimshaws in the Scarborough Collections, and one of the most popular paintings in Scarborough Art Gallery, drawing fans from around the world.

Grimshaw was born in Leeds in 1836. He isn’t known to have had any formal training, but clearly had prodigious talent, and was influenced by the ideals and techniques of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1858, he married his cousin, Frances Hubbarde. The couple were to have no less than 15 children although, sadly, only six survived to adulthood.

The young Atkinson enjoyed painting landscapes and nature studies. But by his early 30s, he had begun to paint the subject which brought him enduring fame - moonlight.

He went on to paint many pictures of Scarborough and Whitby, of the great ports of the UK - London, Glasgow and Liverpool - and of Leeds, more often than not depicted romantically at twilight, with a full and decidedly silvery moon.

Two of Grimshaw’s children – twins Lancelot and Elaine, that romanticism again! – were born in Scarborough, but by 1880, financial difficulties had forced him to give up his beloved Castle-by-the-sea. But he continued to paint pictures of Scarborough and Whitby up until his death in 1894.

One of his obituary notices said: “Daylight effects had little attraction for him; the details were to hard and staring; and it was the mystery of the murky air, the tender hues of the dawn, or the mellow light of the moon thrown on all beneath it, a silvery radiance, that appealed to him most deeply.”

The painting is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on or 01723 384510.