My Favourite Painting: Dame Hilary Mantel

'I feel as if I have crept through his wet, shining streets, hugging the wall, in a dream,'

Silver Moonlight, 1880, by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–93), 32in by 47in, Harrogate Museums and Arts, North Yorkshire. Bridgeman Images.

Dame Hilary Mantel says:
‘The mystery is why I’m drawn to these nocturnes by the artist known as Grimmy. I feel as if I have crept through his wet, shining streets, hugging the wall, in a dream or something like a previous life. This example also seems to illustrate the opening pages of Mother and Son by Ivy Compton-Burnett, one of my favourite novelists.’

Hilary Mantel is the only female author to have won the Booker Prize twice—for the first two parts of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She is currently working on the third instalment, The Mirror and the Light

John McEwen comments:
‘The lady has arrived, ma’am. She has
found her way,’ said the parlourmaid, with
a change in her tone.
‘Found her way? What do you mean?’
‘Along the road from the station, ma’am.
Under the shadow of all those trees. The
dusk is already threatening.’
From the opening page of ‘Mother
and Son’ by Ivy Compton-Burnett

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‘Most parents inwardly groan when their offspring announce that they want to be artists. Grimshaw’s strictly non-conformist mother threw his paints on the fire and even turned off the gas in his room when he began to paint in his spare time from clerking for the railways. He was born in Leeds, which he never deserted, a city with a notably lively Arts scene, and, despite being self taught, had made a name as a Pre-Raphaelite follower before he was 30.

The 1870s proved his most successful decade, when he sold work through the prestigious Agnew’s and had pictures accepted at the Academy. Portraits in the style of Tissot and neo-Classic fantasies preceded the urban and suburban scenes of Tennysonian melancholy for which he is best known. ‘Moonlights’ became his trademark. His father was a policeman and, in the ‘moonlights’, Grimshaw could be said to walk in the footsteps of a nocturnal bobby on the beat.

An unexplained financial disaster forced him to increase his output in the 1880s. He added London to his previously northern urban repertoire and briefly even maintained a London studio. A high rate of production was sustained until his death, but from then until the 1950s, he was almost completely forgotten.’

This article was first published in Country Life, August 21, 2013