Atkinson Grimshaw

Bowder Stone, Borrowdale


Not on display

Atkinson Grimshaw 1836–1893
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 400 × 536 mm
frame: 662 × 709 × 100 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983


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).

Further reading:
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

Heather Birchall
May 2002

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Display caption

Atkinson Grimshaw is best known today for the moonlit landscapes of docks and leafy

suburban roads which first made him popular with collectors in the 1870s. However, he launched his career in the previous decade by painting sharply observed daylight landscapes influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. He may have seen examples of their work in private collections in his native Leeds. A number of Grimshaw''s early landscapes were views of the Lake District, like this one, which he sometimes painted with the aid of photographs.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas 15 3/4 × 21 1/8 (400 × 536)
Inscribed ‘Atkinson Grimshaw| [? Borro'dale]’ b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983
Prov: ...; said to have been in a private collection from c.1900 until sold anonymously, Sotheby's 21 June 1983 (40, repr. in col.) £28,600 bt Lady Abdy for the Tate Gallery
Lit: The Tate Gallery 1982–84, Illustrated Biennial Report, 1984, p.36, repr. in col.

Paintings of Lake District subjects by Grimshaw bearing the dates 1863, 1864, 1865 and 1868 survive (exh. Atkinson Grimshaw, Leeds, Southampton, Liverpool 1979–80, nos.3, 7, 17–18, 21; see also Sotheby's 21 June 1983 lot 41). It is not known, however, how many visits he paid to the Lakes or to what extent he relied in his paintings on the photographs he collected of the region. Twelve such photographs survive in an album of Grimshaw's now in Leeds City Art Gallery, including two that relate to his paintings of ‘Windermere’, 1863, and ‘Nab Scar’, 1864 (Alexander Robertson, ‘Atkinson Grimshaw: Some New Acquisitions’, Leeds Art Calendar, no.94, 1984, pp.13–14).

Not enough is yet known about the chronology of Grimshaw's early work for a precise date to be ascribed to T03683 but it undoubtedly belongs to the same period as his other Lake District paintings and is accordingly dated c.1863–8 here. Like these other works, it reveals the influence of Pre-Raphaelite painting, examples of which Grimshaw might have seen in his native Leeds in the collections of Ellen Heaton and Thomas Plint. By the late 1860s Grimshaw was already moving in a different direction, painting the first of the moonlight scenes which were to make his reputation. His early work was subsequently forgotten; the existence of ‘Bowder Stone, Borrowdale’ was unsuspected before its reappearance at auction in 1983.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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