Painted at the height of his career, November is a very fine example of Grimshaw's skill at capturing the mood of a still autumnal night, the street deserted and quietly bathed in soft moonlight. He has imbued the Victorian urban street with a sense of poetry and romance usually reserved for rural scenes, and escapes any notion of the dirty reality of the industrial era. Whistler once commented after having seen Grimshaw's work, 'I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures.' (L. Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London, 1999, p. 112). Unlike Whistler's Impressionistic night scenes, however, Grimshaw worked in a realistic style that is sharply focused and almost photographic. Indeed, he was very interested in photography and sometimes experimented with using a camera obscura.
November is one of Grimshaw's more poetic scenes and the solitary figure alludes to the suggestion of lovers meeting in secret, a frequent theme of the artist's in the 1880s (see Under the Moonbeams, Knostrop Hall, Christie's, New York, 12 April 2007, lot 111). Alexander Robertson writes, 'Such paintings echo Tennysonian feelings about love: a night-time's longing, 'Half the night I waste in sighs' (Maud), or clandestine meetings, as of Leolin and Edith in Aylmer's Fields:
Yet once by night again the lovers met,
A perilous meeting under the tall pines
That darken'd all the northward of the Hall.
The spirit of the age which Tennyson at times embodied is carried over into Grimshaw's paintings in the common symbol of the moon. These resonances touched Grimshaw's public also. His moonlight scenes, as well as suggesting the strange beauty of the night, of cities and lanes transformed by another light, also mask, with their atmospheric effect, the unpleasant side of industrialization.
Grimshaw made commercial life acceptable by giving contemporary reality a romantic sheen; his moonlight paintings could be seen as an antidote to materialism. Grimshaw's paintings were, therefore, a reassuring statement about contemporary images; in a period of great change they present a wistful nostalgia for the past.' (A. Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, Leeds, 1988, pp. 90-94).
John Atkinson Grimshaw was the son of an ex-policeman and first began painting while working as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway. He encountered bitter opposition from his parents, but after his marriage in 1858 to Theodosia Hobbarde, a cousin of T.S. Cooper, he was able to devote himself to painting.
By 1870, he was successful enough to rent Knostrop Old Hall, a 17th- century mansion near Temple Newsam, which features in many of his pictures. Later in the 1870s, he built a house near Scarborough, and in the 1880s rented a studio in Chelsea. Grimshaw painted mostly for private patrons, and exhibited only five works at the Royal Academy between 1874 and 1886, and one at the Grosvenor Gallery. Grimshaw strove constantly to perfect his own very individual vision. His primary influence was the Pre-Raphaelites and he produced landscapes of accurate color and lighting, and vivid detail. He often painted landscapes that typified seasons or a type of weather; city and suburban street scenes and moonlit views of the docks in London, Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow also figured prominently in his art. By applying his skill in lighting effects, and unusually careful attention to detail, he was often capable of intricately describing a scene, while strongly conveying its mood. His 'paintings of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene.' (P.J. Waller, Town, City and Nation, Oxford, 1983, p. 99).
We are grateful to Alexander Robertson for confirming the authenticity of this work on the basis of a photograph.