John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)
John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)

Looking towards Wasdale, the Lake District

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)
Looking towards Wasdale, the Lake District
signed and dated 'Atkinson Grimshaw 1868' (lower left)
oil on canvas
20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm.)

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Lot Essay

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. The exceptional quality of the painting - and signature - was obscured by a thick layer of dirt, so much so that it was very nearly disposed of in a skip; if it were not for a newspaper clipping on the reverse, detailing the artist’s name, it is likely that the painting would have been lost for good.

Painted in 1868, the year Grimshaw toured the Lake District, Looking towards Wasdale is a work executed by the artist in the heart of his Pre-Raphaelite phase – a phase which was to provide the foundations on which his later nocturnes were produced. Grimshaw has employed the Pre-Raphaelite technique of painting upon a white ground, and carefully building up thin layers of glazes of colour, to create the luminescence that his paintings have become so famed and highly collectible for. Considering Grimshaw’s earliest known works are from 1861, it was also the product of an ambitious young artist trying to establish a name for himself, in a highly competitive market.

Ruskin’s twin edicts of ‘attention to detail’ and ‘truth to nature’ are apparent, with startlingly meticulous detailing rendered into every rock and stone. Ruskin was particularly interested in rocks and stones, and expressed his beliefs in volume four of Modern Painters: Of Mountain Beauty (1856) that the PRB attention to detail was particularly effective for capturing geological effect. Ruskin encouraged artists to visit sublime, mountainous landscapes – indeed, Grimshaw’s fellow Leeds artist, John William Inchbold, travelled across the Alps with Ruskin, and the influence of his work is very much apparent in the present lot. Another artist whose influence is also visible, was John Brett, whose comparable masterpieces Val d’Aosta (Private Collection, 1858) and The Stone Breaker (The Walker Art Gallery, 1857-8) were a direct result of his Alpine travels that had been encouraged by Ruskin.

Alongside such Pre-Raphaelite ideals, the subject-matter itself could be from the ages preceding Raphael: it is a scene that has no doubt, over the centuries, recurred many times over. Along the rocky track a shepherd walks purposefully back to the farm, with an injured ram over his back; a faithful sheepdog trots ahead. As the sun sets, rich golden streaks illuminate the horizon, interrupting violet clouds that usher night in: the shepherd would no doubt see it as a good omen for the following day’s weather. Warm light bounces off the rocks and boulders, silhouetting the landscape and middle horizon, and accentuating the glow of the composition; a peaceful calm envelops the viewer, providing a glimpse of the tranquility that Grimshaw must have experienced whilst on his Lake District tour.

We are grateful to Robin and John Davies for their assistance in identifying the present view, and Alex Robertson for examining images.

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