During the 1870s and 1880s Grimshaw made a series of paintings depicting ethereal beings, often the figurative cipher for a season or natural phenomena.
The most famous of these, Iris: Her autumnal errand (1886, Leeds City Art Gallery) shows a winged figure poised over a lily pond, the gauzy evening light filtering through the far trees. An earlier version, Iris: Spirit of the Rainbow (1876), employs a more intensely golden colour scheme and depicts the figure in the same pose but facing towards the left rather than the right. A large scale version entitled The Spirit of the Night (1879, sold Christie's, New York, 30 October 2002, lot 34, $537,500, fig. 1) shows her wrapped in a delicate veil of stars and positioned high over a coastal town. The sense of spiritual presence protecting and encompassing human existence is beautifully conveyed.
Dame Autumn, however, is exceptional as it shows the fairy facing us, and drawing her veil across her body with a gesture of Salome-esque grace. The straightness of her form, and its statuesque poise, is perhaps appropriate for her sobriety as the bearer of autumn's melancholy yet eerily beautiful persona. For Grimshaw this was the most evocative season, portrayed again in landscapes such as A Golden Idyll (Christie's, London, 25 November 2003, lot 174) and in Study of Beeches: Evening (lot 36).
Alex Robertson has identified Dame Autumn as the first of this distinctive series of fairy paintings - the most mysterious and idiosyncratic part of Grimshaw's oeuvre. The model for the figure of Iris (1876 version) was Mrs Ruhl, the German governess to Grimshaw's children, but the sitter for Dame Autumn has yet to be established. Whatever its secrets, Dame Autumn remains a supreme example of Victorian Fairy painting - the genre identified by Christopher Wood as an antidote to the industrial age, and a testament to the romance and creativity that sat in strange yet satisfying paradox to technological progress.
We are grateful to Alex Robertson for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.