This painting, from a series of three, is one of the most dramatic explorations of the combination of moonlight and firelight in Grimshaw's oeuvre. Its subject is the harbour flare, lit to guide ships back to port on stormy nights, between which and the spume of the wave to the right the animated figures appear as staffage. The picture relates directly to Burning Off, a shipping boat at Scarborough (Scarborough Art Gallery, 1877) and In Peril (Leeds City Art Gallery, 1879) which are almost identical compositions. The present picture is the last of the trio in private hands.
The subject may have been the result of a convergence of influences. Shortly after the Grimshaw family moved to Scarborough in 1876, to rent the house known as 'The Castle by the Sea', they witnessed the spectacular conflagration of Sir Joseph Paxton's Saloon of the Scarborough Spa. Grimshaw commemorated the event with Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: The Burning of the Spa Saloon, emulating Turner's The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, of 1834 (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The painting may have been commissioned by Thomas Jarvis, the wealthy Scarborough brewer who built 'The Castle by the Sea', and who acted as Grimshaw's most important patron at this date. It is Jarvis who is generally credited with turning Grimshaw's work in a new direction and encouraging the artist to paint more moonlight scenes. This development found parallels in the work of Whistler, American born, but Paris trained, whose Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit) became the subject of the famous libel case involving Ruskin, after it had been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery of 1877. Whistler himself later acknowledged the connection (the pair were briefly neighbours in Chelsea in the 1880s), reputedly uttering: 'I thought myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures'.
Though now principally famous for these moonlit 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 (see lots 47 and 299). 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 he 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.