‘Nocturne’: Doubting, Dreaming

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Contemporary / Contemporary Painting / Elation / Exhibitions / Galleries / John Atkinson Grimshaw / Painting / Victorian Painting / Yorkshire Art Journal

‘Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting,
Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.’
~ Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Raven’

Leeds Art Gallery’s current exhibition ‘Nocturne’ engages with the intangible nature of darkness, moonlight and vacant spaces. Said to have been inspired by James Attlee’s book of the same title, curators have juxtaposed the luminous works of John Atkinson Grimshaw with an immense and desolate pair of George Shaw canvases.

The exhibition echoes striking contrasts between the two artists’ work: eight Atkinson Grimshaw pieces of varying sizes, all within gilded frames, are dotted across one long, textured powder blue wall, while Shaw’s unframed canvases are central on the opposing wall, surrounded by Walter Greaves and George Sauter paintings. A sense of the complexity of representing darkness is furthered by the differing colours articulated by the artists. Atkinson Grimshaw’s vivid night skies primarily consist of lucid green and yellow tones, while Shaw’s use of lustrous Humbrol blues and greens creates a sense of lack, fading and melancholy.

“We turned our back on the sky and our faces towards brilliantly lit interiors.”

Attlee’s deconstruction of the way in which our society is progressively less in touch with the cycles of the moon* is aligned with Atkinson Grimshaw’s moonlit landscapes and urban scenes, in which a profound focus on the moon’s power to illuminate the earth emphasises our lessening consideration of moonlight in the present day.

Beyond themes of darkness and moonlight, of vacancy and lack, there is an overriding focus on the nature of uncertainty. The little Clausen ‘Souvenir of Marlow’ (above) sits along the first small wall of the exhibition. This work can be read as playing with ideas of memory and dreams; the blurry evening scene is evocative of ambiguity and hazy recollections, relating to the romance of moonlit promenades that are absent for many city dwellers today. Painted within Atkinson Grimshaw’s lifetime, the work gestures towards the avant-garde impressionistic works of the nineteenth-century that Atkinson Grimshaw is said to have been relatively unphased by. ‘Nocturne’ thus addresses key issues in terms of progressive modernity and nostalgic memory.

An eerie tone marks the majority of the works within this exhibition. The alignment of the paintings allows for up-close analysis, enabling the viewer to engage with artistic technique and materiality. Particularly ominous is the illusory woman presented by Atkinson Grimshaw within his painting ‘Park Row, Leeds’ (above, and detail below.) The woman stands in the middle of the dimly lamp-lit street in a strictly upright pose, faceless. The moon is the overriding light source of the painting, brightening the night sky. The artist regularly endeavours to leave sketches and scratches on his final works; the woman can be interpreted as mysteriously waiting, transparent and stark. ‘Nocturne’ makes focal that in a split second in darkness, we may be doubtful of what we have seen. It is as though on second glance, this woman will have disappeared, raising doubt as to whether she was ever there to begin with.

This nostalgia coupled with a sense of loss is in turn explored by Shaw’s ‘The End of Time,’ (below,) drawing nineteenth-century concerns into the present. Shaw creates paintings reflecting the Coventry council estate in which he grew up. The acclaimed semi-realism of his works is here coupled with disconcerting, glossy desolation. At first glance from afar I misinterpreted the work as depicting fields from aerial perspective. Upon closer observation came the realisation that this is a wasteland, a space in which something once stood, but now there is nothing. There is a lingering sense that the viewer is the outsider, and that there is danger or disturbance lurking. Or perhaps worse, that this place, once full of life, will increasingly become barren, a void untouched and uncared for. There is a sense of lack of closure here: of dreams unfulfilled, of failure.

The exhibition is held on the first floor of Leeds Art Gallery, running until April 2014. Further details can be found on their website.

1. Sir George Clausen, Souvenir of Marlow Regatta. c. 1889. Oil on panel, 16.5 x 24.6 cm. Leeds Art Gallery, North Yorkshire. Source.
2 & 3. John Atkinson Grimshaw, Park Row, Leeds. 1882. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cm. Leeds Art Gallery, North Yorkshire. Source.
4. George Shaw, The End of Time. 2008-2009. Humbrol enamel on board, 147.5 x 198 cm. (Currently held at) Leeds Art Gallery, North Yorkshire. Source.

Katherine April Caddy, 17th February 2014.



  1. Maxwell Ross says

    I saw that exhibition a few months ago – it was my first sight of Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings, and of George Shaw’s. Since then I have sought them out. Both artists appeal to me very much, in that the subject is one I find most interesting and absorbing, and it’s treatment in both cases, particularly redeeming and beautiful.


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