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

Spirit of Night

John Atkinson Grimshaw (British, 1836-1893)
Spirit of Night
signed and dated 'Atkinson Grimshaw 1879.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
32½ x 48 in. (82.5 x 122 cm.)
Painted in 1879
Mrs I.G. Appleby (by 1979); Sotheby's Belgravia, 6 October 1980, lot 13.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Leeds, Leeds City Art Galleries, Atkinson Grimshaw, October - November 1979, no. 64 (loaned by Mrs I.G. Appleby on a label on the stretcher).

Lot Essay

Fairies and Fairy Tales presented the Victorian artist with a vehicle to explore taboo subjects such as sex, nudity, violence and even drugs, and in return, the Victorian audience was a ready consumer of such fantastical tales. After all the imagery provided them with an escape from the materialistic realities of the ever-growing industrialist society they lived in. As Christopher Wood states we "tend to think of the Victorians as stern and moralistic, staring grimly out at us from early photographs, in their black top hats and frock coats. But Dickens was right in his perception that underneath that deceptively utilitarian surface, the Victorians yearned for 'some great romance'. "In their art, their literature and their architecture, they were arch-romantics and dreamers, the true heirs to the Romantic Movement. In art they gave us Pre-Raphaelitism, the greatest and most long-lasting romantic movement in English art. They also gave us some of the most extraordinary fairy paintings ever produced in any country at any time" (C. Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, England, 2000, p. 8).

Grimshaw produced a limited number of canvases in this genre. Besides the present work, there are only two other compositions, both handling the figure of Iris, the messenger of the Gods (both at the Leeds City Art Galleries). In all three paintings, the figure of the nude is the same model despite minor differences in her positioning, gesture and the coloring. Grimshaw loved to experiment with prisms to catch the effect of seeing coloured light and used such effects in this series of pictures. In the present work, the fairy is hovering above a village located by the sea under the moon lit evening sky that reflects off of her translucent skin and shimmers in colors of the rainbow on her wings. "It is a remarkably effective and haunting fairy image, and one can only wish Grimshaw had painted more of these, and fewer versions of Liverpool docks. The fewer other nudes he painted in this way are all of classical subjects, such as Diana the Huntress and Ariadne on Naxos" (Wood, op. cit., p. 129).

The painting originally bore a tablet label with a quote from Shelley's Night: "Wrap thy form in a mantle grey/Star in wrought!/Blind with thine hair the eyes of Day;/Kiss her until she be wearied out./Then wonder o'er city and sea and land,/Touching all with thine opiate wand -/Come, long sought!".

Alex Robertson has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

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