This is a lovely, early Atkinson Grimshaw from the period in his career when Romanticism was meeting pre-Raphaelitism. Although JMW Turner and John William Inchbold’s work of this period had some influence over Grimshaw’s painting, Grimshaw himself was regarded by his contemporaries as a ground breaking artist in his own right.
This is reflected in Whistler’s famous comment: “I thought I had invented the Nocturne until I saw Grimmy’s moonlights”
(The Times Literary Supplement (London, England), Friday, June 09, 1989; pg. 640; Issue 4497)
The painting shows the degree to which Atkinson Grimshaw’s communication of light and shade was central to his aim of depicting the sublime. The sheer enormity of the landscape and the sky have the effect of dwarfing the figure: a deliberate technique by the artist to remind the viewer that humanity only exists by the grace and favour of nature. The figure walks away from the viewer into the distance, to suggest an unknown beyond reach of all of us.
It may be that Grimshaw is better known, nowadays, for his paintings of moonlit docks and of artificial light emanating from shops and houses in smoggy British industrialised towns. However, without the body of work from which ‘Late Autumn on the Esk’ was created, Grimshaw would not have been able to hone his skills and achieve such a sophisticated understanding as to how to evoke half-light and atmosphere in his compositions.
This daytime piece would have been very contemporary for the period and appealing to the cultured upper classes of the time. This is somewhat ironic: the majority of Atkinson Grimshaw’s patrons had come into great wealth as a result of the industrial revolution. Yet, they chose to invest that wealth on images such as this, which seek to prove that industry is meaningless in the face of the power of nature.
The palette of autumnal oranges and blue sky complement each other and were appreciated by artists of the Romantic movement. They evoke harmony in the mind of the viewer and, when combined with Grimshaw’s attention to detail, composition creates a quiet but stirring piece of work.