He was born September 1836 in Leeds. In 1856 he married his cousin Frances Hubbard (1835-1917). In 1861, at the age of 24, to the dismay of his parents, he left his first job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to become a painter. He began exhibiting in 1862, under the patronage of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, with paintings mainly of birds, fruit, and blossoms. He became particularly successful in the 1870s and began to rent a second home in Scarborough, which also became a favourite subject.
Several of his children, Arthur Grimshaw (1864–1913), Louis H Grimshaw (1870–1944), Wilfred Grimshaw (1871–1937) and Elaine Grimshaw (1877–1970), also became painters. WorkNightfall on the Thames, 1880
Grimshaw's primary influence was the Pre-Raphaelites. True to the Pre-Raphaelite style, he created landscapes of accurate colour and lighting, and vivid detail. He often painted landscapes that typified seasons or a type of weather; city and suburban street scenes and moonlit views of the docks in London, Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow also figured largely in his art. His careful painting and skill in lighting effects meant that he often captured both the appearance and the mood of a scene in minute detail. His 'paintings of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene.'
Dulce Domum (1855), on whose reverse Grimshaw wrote, 'mostly painted under great difficulties,' captures the music portrayed in the piano-player, entices the eye to meander through the richly decorated room, and to consider the still and silent young lady who is listening. Grimshaw painted more interior scenes, especially in the 1870s, when he worked under the influence of James Tissot and the Aesthetic Movement.
On Hampstead Hill is considered one of Grimshaw's finest, exemplifying his skill with a variety of light sources, in capturing the mood of the passing of twilight into night. In his later career his urban scenes under twilight or yellow streetlighting were highly popular, especially with his middle-class patrons.
His later work included imagined scenes from the Greek and Roman empires, and he also painted literary subjects from Longfellow and Tennyson—pictures including Elaine and The Lady of Shalott. (Grimshaw named all of his children after characters in Tennyson's poems.)
In the 1880s, Grimshaw maintained a London studio in Chelsea, not far from the comparable studio of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After visiting Grimshaw, Whistler remarked that 'I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures.' Unlike Whistler's Impressionistic night scenes, however, Grimshaw worked in a realistic vein: 'sharply focused, almost photographic,' his pictures innovated in applying the tradition of rural moonlight images to the Victorian city, recording 'the rain and mist, the puddles and smoky fog of late Victorian industrial England with great poetry.'Shipping on the Clyde, 1881
Grimshaw's paintings depicted the modern world but eschewed the dirty and depressing aspects of industrial towns. Shipping on the Clyde for instance, a depiction of Glasgow's Victorian docks, is a lyrically beautiful evocation of the industrial era. Grimshaw transcribed the fog and mist so accurately as to capture the chill in the damp air, and the moisture penetrating the heavy clothes of the few figures awake in the misty early morning.
Some artists of Grimshaw's period, like Vincent Van Gogh and James Smetham, left many letters and other documents recording their work and lives. Others, like Edward Pritchett, left nothing. Grimshaw left behind no letters, journals, or papers; scholars and critics have little material on which to base their understanding of his life and career.
Grimshaw died 1October 1893, and is buried in Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds. His reputation rested, and his legacy is probably based on, his townscapes. There was a major revival of interest in Grimshaw's work in the second half of the 20th century, with several important exhibitions devoted to it. A new retrospective exhibition Atkinson Grimshaw – Painter of Moonlight is running from 1April 201to September 201at Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate.