Rounday Lake is a work of subtle romanticism, staged in a rich, mysterious and highly theatrical landscape. Painted in 1877, the composition anticipates the cinematic devices of the 20th century: indeed, one could almost be looking at an atmospheric shot from a Francis Ford Coppola or Hitchcock masterpiece, the camera about to slowly pan across the scenery.
Bold, defined tree branch silhouettes reach towards the couple who appear to be about to embrace, while the fence along the lower edge of the painting, mirrors the branches; both serve to frame and encompass the figures, and draw one’s eye to the centre of the composition. The lovers are perhaps having a moonlit stroll (the brightness implies a full-moon), or possibly an assignation: which of the two possibilities is left to the viewer to decide. Looking across the lake, shrouded in a diaphanous mist, with moonlight dancing off the waters, one is drawn towards a contemplation of the history of Roundhay, and the events – of which Grimshaw was no doubt aware - that created the park.
The land itself was initially a medieval hunting ground granted to Ilbert de Lacy by William the Conqueror in return for his loyal support during the campaigns in Northern England in 1069-70, while the lake, a 33 acre stretch of water, was constructed much later, by troops who had just returned from the Napoleonic Wars. At the start of the nineteenth century, the estate was purchased by shipping magnate and stockbroker, Thomas Nicholson, who developed the natural features of the park into an impressive country estate complete with ravine, gorge, top lake, landscaped gardens, woodland walkways and waterfalls. The park was purchased by Sir John Barran, Mayor of Leeds, for the city’s people in 1871, and on 20 September 1872 Prince Arthur officially opened Roundhay Estate as a public park.
Grimshaw painted several views of Roundhay, initially because its new status was in contention. As the park was outside the borough boundaries, an Act of Parliament was necessary for the Corporation of Leeds to purchase the estate. On 19 April 1872, The Leeds Mercury described a commission given to Grimshaw to paint three views of the park to illustrate its splendour and extent to the Parliamentary committee in support of the Leeds Improvement Bill. These views were, interestingly, nocturnes, and as the present work attests, Grimshaw remained deeply interested in this location and its moonlit appearance throughout his career. The setting inspired him to produce some of his most sensitive and poetic paintings.