‘Without a doubt, Looking towards Wasdale is one of the most exciting and important Grimshaw discoveries in recent years — and one that was nearly never so,’ says Tom Rooth, Head of Christie’s Victorian & British Impressionist Pictures department.
Painted by British artist John Atkinson Grimshaw in 1868, nearly 150 years ago, the work had accumulated a thick layer of dust and grime. ‘The artist’s signature was obscured, and with it, much of the detail and quality,’ says Rooth, ‘so much so that the owner nearly threw it away.’
The reverse of the frame showing the newspaper article
A newspaper article, secured to the back of the painting, discouraged them from doing so. Unremarkable at first glance, the clipping was an obituary for Grimshaw, dating from 1893. ‘If it were not for that, it is likely that the painting would have been lost for good — consigned to the scrap heap,’ explains Rooth. ‘The owner googled the name, then contacted Christie’s.’ As a result, the painting was offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art auction on 23 March 2016 at Christie’s in London.
Though the obituary appeared to link the work to Grimshaw, it was not typical of the artist’s output. When it was presented to the specialist, however, he was certain of its authenticity: ‘I thought it was fantastic. There was no question whatsoever — the execution, beautiful detailing, hand, age, compositional structure and luminosity associated with his work… all said Grimshaw.’
Over several weeks, the work was cleaned by art restorers. ‘It was a slow and painstaking process, but it was apparent that something very special was hidden beneath the grime,’ Rooth recalls. ‘Even through the dirt, the colours glowed.’
Grimshaw’s parents were strict Baptists who disapproved of his desire to become a painter — so much so that his mother once burnt his paints
The image that was revealed was worth the wait — a meticulously detailed depiction of a rocky trail, captured at sunset, with Grimshaw’s distinct signature clearly emerging in the lower corner. Towards the centre, a shepherd walks purposefully back to his farm, carrying an injured ram, while a faithful sheepdog trots ahead. As the sun sets, golden streaks illuminate the horizon, interrupting violet clouds that are a good omen for the following day’s weather.
The work was painted during the year that Grimshaw toured Britain’s Lake District. ‘This is the heart of his Pre-Raphaelite phase,’ continues Rooth. One of the movement’s most audible advocates, John Ruskin, encouraged artists to visit sublime, mountainous landscapes. His twin edicts of ‘attention to detail’ and ‘truth to nature’ are apparent in the startling detail of every rock and stone in Grimshaw's painting.
If the movement’s subject matter influenced Grimshaw’s output, so too did the material approaches favoured by its members. ‘Grimshaw has employed the Pre-Raphaelite technique of painting on a white ground, carefully building up thin layers of coloured glazes to create the luminescence his paintings have become so famed and collectible for,’ observes Rooth.
John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), Nightfall down the Thames, 1880. Oil on cardboard. Leeds City Art Gallery
The technique is one that Grimshaw would pursue throughout his career, creating luminous halos in later works such as the nocturnes — atmospheric paintings of gas-lit streets and waterfronts by night, reported to have prompted the artist James Whistler to remark: ‘I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures’.
Despite his talent, in many ways it was remarkable that Grimshaw was able to pursue art at all: ‘Grimshaw was self-taught, and his parents were strict Baptists who disapproved of his desire to become a painter — so much so that his mother once burnt his paints,’ says Rooth. ‘Against the odds, and whilst working full time as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway, he was able to establish himself.’
Restored to its original glory, Looking towards Wasdale glows again, having almost been lost forever. For Rooth, the discovery is one of great value: ‘Academically, this is a rare and important work from Grimshaw’s brief Pre-Raphaelite phase.
‘For me, however, the most important aspect of it’s having been saved is that it is fundamentally a very beautiful picture. It has been painted with soul and feeling. Like all of the greatest work, Looking towards Wasdale comes from the heart, and speaks of creativity and inspiration.’
Main image at top: John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), Looking towards Wasdale, the Lake District. Oil on canvas. 20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm.). This work was offered in Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 23 March 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £122,500
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