John Atkinson Grimshaw
- John Atkinson Grimshaw
- Heaven's Lamp
- signed and dated l.r.: Atkinson Grimshaw/18_6+
- oil on canvas
Although it is difficult to read the date on Heaven’s Lamp, it is likely that it was painted in 1886 in the midst of the period when he painted several of his greatest nocturnes. It is a classic view by the artist, of one of the evocative suburban street scenes painted in London and Yorkshire. The streets are rarely deserted in these romantic scenes, human activity embodied here by the house-maid wandering along the leaf-strewn road in the last light of the day. The present picture takes its title from the early evening moon which is in its fullest form and casts a chill, brilliant silvery light over the scene and against the clouds of the sky. As night draws in the residents of the elegant mansion behind the high wall, have retired to the warmth of gaslight and firelight which glows from the windows. This contrast of the man-made golden light and the ethereal silver magnificence of the eternal moon, is the subject of many of Grimshaw’s work but here the title makes this even more implicit than ever. It is late autumn or winter and the trees are bare of their leaves, skeletal against the malachite of the sky and creating a filigree pattern that frames the curve of the sinuous road. Heaven’s Lamp depicts an unidentified view and is probably an amalgam of views in North Yorkshire, rather than a specific identifiable location.
Grimshaw's primary influence was from the Pre-Raphaelites and it was from their work that he took inspiration to seek to represent the differing moods of the seasons, weather and light. The way in which he has captured the realism of the wet leaf-strewn road is masterful and his atmospheric use of light was the result of endless study of its subtle nuances. His 'paintings of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene.' (P.J. Waller, Town, City and Nation, 1983, p.99)
The lone maid with her basket of provisions, wandering along the path beneath the moonlight, presents a romantic notion of servitude and Grimshaw's paintings rarely make a political statement. However he was nota high-born artist looking down upon workers without an understanding of the hardships of life. He lived in stylish and comfortable Knostrop Old Hall but his father had been a policeman and Grimshaw himself had known the drudgery of labour when he worked as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway.
As Alexander Robertson states, 'Just as myth and legend were to be plundered for subjects, so actual and historical houses could be put together to form an archetypical mansion'. This series of pictures recall the lines of Lord Alfred Tennyson's Enoch Arden; 'The small house, The climbing street, the mill, the leafy lanes, The peacock-yew tree and the lonely Hall... The chill November dawns and dewy-glooming downs, The gentle shower, the smell of the dying leaves...' Although Grimshaw was inspired by the modernism of industrial dockyards and lamplit city commercialism, he was also a great admirer of the crumbling heritage of England, with a deep love for Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture. Amongst the items which remained in his estate when he died, were a handful of his most precious books, including A History of Hardwick Hall of 1835. Grimshaw painted many street scenes in which beautiful ancient houses stand hauntingly silent, bathed in the golden dawn light or the mysterious shadows of evening and surrounded by birch trees stripped bare by the approaching winter.