At the age of twenty five Grimshaw gave up work as a railway clerk and began painting full-time. His career reached its peak in the 1870s when his ethereal paintings of urban streets lit by moonlight were sold in large quantities to wealthy northern industrialists. By contrast, his early work, some of which has only relatively recently come to light, was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite landscape artists and the instructions of John Ruskin (1819-1900), stated in the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), that artists should 'go to Nature … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing' (E.T.Cook and A.Wedderburn (eds.) The Works of John Ruskin, III, pp.623-4)
Grimshaw may have become familiar with the work of the Pre-Raphaelites from the private collections of Thomas Plint (1823-61) and Ellen Heaton (1816-94) who both lived in his native Leeds, and who voraciously commissioned paintings from Henry Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and John Everett Millias (1829-96). In addition Grimshaw may have had access to the paintings of John William Inchbold (1830-88) who spent his early years in Leeds before moving to London. There he became acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelites and met Ruskin who encouraged him to paint landscapes in a painstaking technique. The majority of Grimshaw's early landscapes followed Inchbold's example and were painted in a hard-edge manner in brilliant colours.
The precise date of Bowder Stone, Borrowdale is not known, but it is likely to have been painted during the same period as Grimshaw's other Lake District paintings, including Windermere (1863) and Nab Scar (1864). The precarious position of the rock may have attracted Grimshaw to paint the 2000 ton Bowder Stone, which is approximately thirty feet high, fifty feet across and ninety feet in circumference. The steps leaning against the rock demonstrate its importance as a tourist attraction. The River Derwent, visible behind, winds its way to the mountains of Skiddaw and Saddleback in the distance. Although Grimshaw may have worked outdoors for some of the details of the painting, there is evidence that he relied on photographic sources in an attempt to record the natural world with absolute visual accuracy. It was a common practice for artists at this time to use photographs as an aide-memoire when they returned to their studio. Grimshaw's interest in photography is well documented. Robertson has made a direct comparison between Grimshaw's Nab Scar and a photograph taken by Thomas Ogle of Penrith, a commercial photographer working in the area (Robertson, p.111). This photograph is in an album that belonged to Grimshaw now held at Leeds City Art Gallery. Robertson rightly asserts that Bowder Stone, Borrowdale was 'almost certainly based on a photographic source' which, he continues, contributed to the 'frozen quality, an almost "airless moment of time"' characteristic of his paintings from this period (Robertson, p.22).
Michael Bartram, Pre-Raphaelite Camera, London 1985, p. 66
Alexander Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, London 1988, p.22, reproduced in colour, p.23
The Tate Gallery: 1982-1984 Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986, p.25