Though now principally famous for moonlight scenes, Grimshaw's career followed a remarkable progression. Born the son of a policeman, he found initial employment as a railway clerk until his marriage to his cousin, Theodosia Hubbard, who was also a cousin of the artist Thomas Sidney Cooper. Theodosia encouraged her husband's artistic ambitions, and in 1861 he retired from the Great Northern Railway and started exhibiting still lives and landscapes. A tour of the Lake District in 1868 resulted in pictures of startling Pre-Raphaelite detail, while their move to Knostrop Old Hall, near Leeds, in 1870 encouraged works in more autumnal hues. Later in his career he found inspiration in depicting the ports of Whitby, Glasgow and London. Inventive in his technique, Grimshaw was one of the first artists to use photography to his own ends, and in some of his canvases, sand can be seen to be mixed with pigment to achieve the textures he desired. Although he rarely exhibited at the Royal Academy or the Grosvenor Gallery, his work was much in demand from patrons and dealers in the north of England and can still be found in many collections there.
Demonstrating another facet of the artist's oeuvre, this picture is one of a series in which Grimshaw attempts to emulate the evocations of the ancient world painted by Alma-Tadema, whose paintings were extremely popular in the last quarter of the 19th Century. They purport to show the domestic scenes and social manners of the ancients but they also bear a strong resemblance to those of contemporary Victorian England. The citizens of the Victorian Empire, and their concerns and issues, were compared with those of the Roman Empire. Alma-Tadema humanized the society of ancient Rome and succeeded in presenting a bright and colourful world to which the Victorian patrons could escape away from the reality of modern industrial life. His work was exhibited in Leeds in 1872 and 1875 and Grimshaw could easily have viewed it at first hand there as well as in London.
The composition owes a clear debt to Alma-Tadema's Catullus reading his poems at Lesbia's House (fig. 1) which was executed in 1870 and exhibited at the International Exhibition in London of 1871 (no. 419). Although Grimshaw painted this picture eight years later in 1879, the disposition of table and couch set before two pillars is identical, and the landscape beyond, particularly in the placement of the pedimented temple porticos, is replicated to an almost exact degree. The costume of the two protagonists has perhaps inevitably been changed to counter charges of plagiarism, and the male poet is seated, but in both pictures the male arm is outstretched in declamatory mode, while the female figure reclines with her elbow on a cushion. The model for Grimshaw's painting is probably Miss Leefe, his favourite sitter.
Grimshaw's rendering of detail and texture is highly accomplished , as his skill in describing the domestic interior had recently been honed in a series of paintings bearing stylistic similarity to the work of Tissot. These were to reach their culmination in Dulce Domum, of 1885, in which the 'aesthetic' interior of Knostrup Old Hall is recorded in painstaking detail. The picture is now in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber, and was seen in the Royal Academy exhibition Pre Raphaelite and Other Masters, The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, 2004, no. 117.
Other works in a classical vein by Grimshaw include Fiamella of 1883, now in Bradford City Art Galleries and Two Thousand Years Ago of 1878, which derives its composition from Alma-Tadema's Pleading, now in the Guildhall Art Gallery, The City of London. Both were sold through Grimshaw's London dealer Agnew who commissioned further classical works in response to demand.
We are grateful to Alex Robertson for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.
(fig. 1) Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Catullus reading his poems at Lesbia's House, 1870, whereabouts unknown.