John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), Looking towards Wasdale, the Lake District. Oil on canvas. 20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm.). Estimate £100,000-150,000. Offered in British and European

Discovery: saved by a newspaper cutting

Specialist Sarah Reynolds reveals how a remarkable painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw was restored to its former glory — having almost been thrown away

Back in 2016, Christie’s British Art department received a call from someone suggesting they had rediscovered a long-lost work by the British artist John Atkinson Grimshaw.

The painting, which looked like a martian landscape, had been made in 1868, but over 150 years had developed a thick layer of dust and grime, which obscured the artist’s signature, as well as the picture’s quality.

‘The caller revealed that the work was so filthy they nearly threw it away,’ explains Sarah Reynolds, Head of the upcoming British and European Art sale at Christie’s. ‘Fortunately, a small newspaper clipping of Grimshaw’s obituary secured to the frame’s reverse made them think twice about doing so.’

The reverse of the picture showing Grimshaw’s obituary on the frame, bottom left

The reverse of the picture showing Grimshaw’s obituary on the frame, bottom left

After the owner Googled the name on the cutting and realised the potential importance of the picture, they contacted Christie’s.

‘When the picture came in, we could see it had all of Grimshaw’s classic tells,’ continues Reynolds. ‘The detailing, the composition and the luminous sky all corroborated the attribution. It was one of the most important rediscoveries from his oeuvre in a generation.’

When the picture sold several months later at Christie’s, it soared past its low estimate of £50,000 to realise £122,500. Between 2-16 December, the work is being offered again in London.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), Looking towards Wasdale, The Lake District, 1868. Oil on canvas. 20 x 30 in (50.8 x 76.2 cm). Estimate £100,000-150,000. Offered in British and European Art, 2-16 December, Online

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), Looking towards Wasdale, The Lake District, 1868. Oil on canvas. 20 x 30 in (50.8 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: £100,000-150,000. Offered in British and European Art, 2-16 December, Online

Grimshaw was a self-taught artist, much to the horror of his strict Baptist parents who once burned his paints. Aged 24, he left his job as a clerk with the Great Northern Railway and began to exhibit paintings of birds, fruits and blossom around his native Leeds.

Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, Grimshaw soon turned to creating vivid landscapes. He also employed their technique of painting on a white ground, carefully building up thin layers of coloured glazes to create the luminescence he is now celebrated for.

This work was painted during a trip to the Lake District, which was encouraged by the Pre-Raphaelite champion John Ruskin, who suggested that Grimshaw discover the area’s sublime, mountainous landscapes for himself. Ruskin’s 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.

It depicts a rugged trail at sunset. The only sense of scale comes from a small shepherd, who carries an injured ram back to his farm while his faithful sheepdog trots ahead. As the sun sets, golden streaks illuminate the horizon, interrupting violet clouds that offer the shepherd a good omen for the following day’s weather.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (British, 1836-1893), A Wet Moon, Putney Road. 24 x 42⅛  in (61 x 107  cm). Sold for $552,500 on 31 October 2018 at Christie’s in New York
John Atkinson Grimshaw (British, 1836-1893), A Wet Moon, Putney Road. 24 x 42⅛ in (61 x 107 cm). Sold for $552,500 on 31 October 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘The picture’s realism lay the foundations for Grimshaw’s later, more famous urban nocturnes, such as the gas lamp-lit docks of Liverpool and lanes of Hampstead — the likes of which prompted the artist James Whistler to remark: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures”,’ adds Reynolds.

After its rediscovery, Looking towards Wasdale was handed over to a restorer who spent several weeks cleaning the surface. Once the dirt had been removed, the colours glowed once more. Grimshaw’s signature in the picture’s lower left corner also shone again.

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For Reynolds, it’s not only an academically important work — a rare picture from the artist’s brief flirt with the Pre-Raphaelites — but it also speaks to the heart.

‘It's been painted with soul and feeling,’ she says. ‘And like all great Grimshaw pictures, it highlights his creativity and mastery of emotion. How lucky it was saved from the skip.’