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
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
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.