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Success and Sorrow

In 1862 a young couple in Leeds had son called Edmund. He died in the same year. In 1867 they had a daughter called Lilian. She was dead before her third birthday. In 1874 they lost three children to diphtheria: Clara, Gertrude and Hubert. Finally, in 1882 they lost Hilda and Elsie.

Were the couple unlucky? Were they poor and unable to feed their family properly? No, they were normal, not unlucky. And they weren’t poor: the couple were John Atkinson Grimshaw and his wife Fanny. John Atkinson Grimshaw was a successful artist whose paintings are now popular all over the world. He was born in Leeds in 1836, son of a policeman. Few people would have guessed that he was destined for fame when he started work as a railway clerk in 1852.

But he had big ambitions. He had taught himself to paint and slowly began to make a name for himself with his art, first in Leeds, then in the rest of Britain. Three years after he married his cousin Fanny Hubbarde in 1858, he resigned from his job as a job as a clerk and became a full-time artist. His paintings began to sell for increasing sums and were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.

Grimshaw was most famous for his skill at moonlit scenes, which he could fill with atmosphere and mystery. When he moved to London for a time, he made friends with the famous American painter James Whistler, who praised him as an equal. By the 1870s, Grimshaw was rich enough to buy a big house in Scarborough and decorate it luxuriously according to his own designs. He was one of the most famous and celebrated artists in Britain.

But his successful life was also full of sorrow, because he and his wife lost so many children. That wasn’t unusual in Victorian times, even in rich families. Doctors were still ignorant of how to treat or prevent many diseases. Water and food were often dangerously contaminated. Being a baby or young child was a dangerous time. A married couple could have twenty children and lose half or more of them.

In short, death was a familiar visitor to a Victorian household, but that didn’t make the Victorians callous or indifferent. The Grimshaws mourned their lost children deeply and never forgot them. And their losses must have made them value their surviving children more. They would have been pleased at how well they turned out. Their son Arthur became a composer and organist at St Anne’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Leeds. Their daughter Enid was successful as a singer. Lancelot worked for the Yorkshire Post. Elaine and Louis became artists like their father.

Elaine also wrote about her father’s life and work, helping to keep his reputation alive when Victorian art fell out of fashion in the early twentieth century. She herself might have passed away young, like so many of her siblings, but she survived those dangerous early years and nearly reached her hundredth birthday. She was born in 1877 under Queen Victoria. She died in 1971 under Queen Elizabeth II. She saw some big changes in that long life.

One of the biggest and most welcome has been the sharp fall in child mortality in Britain. No-one today has to suffer like John Atkinson Grimshaw, whose success and fame could not shield him from the worst loss that can strike a parent: the death of a child. Perhaps that is why he was drawn so often to paint scenes of moonlight and night-time cities. They were calm and beautiful, reminders that life carries on even in the darkness.