Born in Leeds in 1836, the son of an ex-policeman, John Atkinson Grimshaw first began painting while working as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway. His parents did not support his artistic aspirations, but with his marriage in 1858 to Theodosia Hubbarde, the young artist was able to follow his vocation. By 1870, he was successful enough to rent Knopstrop Old Hall, a 17th Century mansion near Temple Newsam, which appears in many his paintings. Grimshaw painted mostly private commissions, and he only exhibited five works at the Royal Academy between 1874 and 1886.
Although his style and subject matter changed very little during his career, Grimshaw strove constantly for perfection in his canvases. He was most interested in the new invention of photography, and used the camera obscura to enhance his own vision.
Grimshaw's moonlit scenes are among his most popular, and Under the Moonbeams is an excellent example of the artist at the height of his powers.
Under the Moonbeams is one of Grimshaw's more poetic titles and alludes to a grander theme with the suggestion of lovers meeting in secret. He also used this title for another work executed in the same year (A. Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, Leeds, 1988, pl. 79.). Robertson writes, 'Such paintings echo Tennysonian feelings about love: a night-time's longing, 'Half the night I waste in sighs' (Maud), or clandestine meetings, as of Leolin and Edith in Aylmer's Fields:
Yet once by night again the lovers met,
A perilous meeting under the tall pines
That darken'd all the northward of the Hall.
The spirit of the age which Tennyson at times embodied is carried over into Grimshaw's paintings in the common symbol of the moon. These resonances touched Grimshaw's public also. His moonlights, as well as suggesting the strange beauty of night, of cities and lanes transformed by another light, also mask, with their atmospheric effect, the unpleasant side of industrialization. Grimshaw made commercial life acceptable by giving contemporary reality a romantic sheen; his moonlight paintings could be seen as an antidote to materialism....Grimshaw's paintings were, therefore, a reassuring statement about contemporary images; in a period of great change they presented a wistful nostalgia for the past.' (op. cit., pp. 90-94).