Fairies and fairy tales presented Victorian artists with an accepted vehicle to explore taboo subjects such as sex, nudity, violence and even drug addiction, and in return the Victorian audience was a ready consumer of these fantastical images. This specific imagery provided the Victorian sensibility with an escape from the materialistic realities of the ever-growing industrialist society in which they lived. 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 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, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000, p. 8).
Grimshaw produced only a small number of canvases in this genre. In addition to Spirit of Night, there are two compositions depicting Iris, a messenger of the gods who is also the goddess of autumn, both which are currently in the Leeds City Art Gallery. The model for the fairy in all three paintings is Agnes Leefe, who was an actress at the Leeds Grand Theatre. She was the model for a significant number of paintings in the artist’s oeuvre, and the only model for his nudes, which were all painted at a time when Miss Leefe was living and modeling for Grimshaw in London. The young woman seems to have been an accepted part of the Grimshaw household, more a ward, with the nickname ‘Little Orphan Annie’, and she died young of consumption in the care of Grimshaw’s wife at their home in Leeds.
Spirit of Night is a study in iridescence, the effect of light the artist loved best. He constantly experimented with prisms to catch the effect of seeing colored light, and used such effects in this series of pictures. His daughter, Elaine, wrote, ‘My father was always fascinated by colour-iridescence. He would study the prismatic range in the beveled mirrors of candelabra; and if we children found in the big garden a bit of old glass, oxidized by age and weather, we would proudly take it to him, to add to his collection a box which lay open on a table beside his easel' (Quoted in J. Sellars, ed., Atkinson Grimshaw. Painter of Moonlight, exh. cat., Harrogate, Mercer Art Gallery, 2011, p. 64).
In the present work, the fairy, clad only in a transparent veil, hovers above a village by the sea under a moonlit sky, the silvery light reflecting off the sea, her translucent skin and shimmers in all the colors of the rainbow on her opalescent 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 the Liverpool docks. The fewer other nudes he painted in this way are all Classical subjects, such as Diana the Huntress and Ariadne on Naxos’ (Wood, ibid., p. 129).
This painting originally bore a tablet label with a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Night:
Wrap thy form in 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!
We are grateful to Alexander Robertson for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.