The Art of Darkness

Nocturne at Leeds Art Gallery brings together a range of painters linked mainly by their desire to explore the artistic potential of darkness. Predominantly featured is Leeds artist John Atkinson Grimshaw, with eight of his works, which although owned by the museum, are not all usually on display. These paintings all present scenes at night where moonlight or streetlight are shown reflected on water. Highlights also include works by Turner-prize nominee George Shaw and Henry Pether.

Three of Atkinson Grimshaw’s works provide romantic representations of Leeds streets, affording damp cobbles and brickwork a glistening magical charm. Boar Lane, Leeds by Lamplight, painted in 1881 depicts Victorian shops glowing invitingly from the dimness. The brown and black of the buildings provides a foil for the key use of yellow which gives the painting its warmth, and creates intrigue about the nature of the shops which the dark figures in the street are being drawn to. Atkinson Grimshaw employs an interesting application of yellow and orange paint flicks for the street lights which creates the effect of light glinting from behind glass into the night.

This same application technique of orange was used by the artist for In Peril in 1879, a piece which has a strong, traumatic narrative of a shipwreck. Distressed onlookers stand by a beacon whose flames spit out into the sky; this coupled with white waves breaking over the sea wall creates a dramatic, hellish foreground contrasting with the slow doom of the ship’s dark shape sinking in the distance. Facing this painting is a 21st century work of art showing a sombre urban scene at night, The Next Big Thing. Painted by George Shaw in 2010, it depicts a demolition site. Unlike Atkinson Grimshaw’s work, this scene has no visible light source, however the particular blue enamel paint Shaw uses captures just that peculiar colour of a sky turning to dusk. Sadly, in the gallery interpretation text, the viewer is not given the context of this work which, once understood, far extends its significance from being a photorealistic depiction of rubble, to a poignant metaphor of loss and grief. In The Next Big Thing, Shaw documents the loss of a building of personal significance to him on the Coventry council estate where he grew up. This is the pub where he went with his father and was the location of their last outing before his father’s death. Shaw also seems to document the loss of a community through illustrating the loss of its social hub. The flattening of the building and the desolation left behind suggests emptiness and grief. Atkinson Grimshaw and Shaw are both representational artists who have chosen to depict the night but have very different approaches to interpreting it.

Morning, with a View of Kirkstall Abbey, painted c. 1850 by Henry Pether has the quality of a Dutch old master and is an atmospheric portrayal of the ruins of the Abbey next to moonlit water. It is remarkable to note that generations of the Pether family all forged artistic careers specialising in nocturnal scenes.

This exhibition makes the viewer consider the difficulties and possibilities of representing a nocturnal subject, showing huge contrasts in how it might be achieved. Night time is a refreshing and uncommon exhibition theme and I feel that Leeds Art Gallery have selected high quality work for this single gallery exhibition, although a little more information on some of the pieces could have enhanced the visitor’s experience.

Helena Roddis

October 2013 – April 2014
Leeds Art Gallery
The Headrow
Leeds LS1 3AA

Filed under: Art & Photography