As the last post on the Victorian spiritual underground helped connect some people to Samuel Palmer’s art, let’s have a look at a Victorian painter of a very different character. I first encountered Atkinson Grimshaw’s work on the dust jacket of a collection of M.R. James’s ghost stories.
Grimshaw was initially a railway clerk, but abandoned his day job to become a painter of moonlight scenes and rainy nightscapes in northern English towns. It appears he’s remembered now for the very good reason that there was pretty much no one else like him, although there are parallels with Arnold Böcklin and Caspar David Friedrich. His pictures may have been meant to communicate a kind of idealised rustic beauty, but to modern eyes the best of them come across as essays in loneliness, a wintry counter-argument to Palmer’s ecstatic landscapes.
His pictures perfectly compliment M.R. James’s stories, and they echo Jonathan Miller’s 1968 BBC Omnibus treatment of James’s most famous (and terrifying) story “Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you” in which a pompous academic on holiday in Norfolk discovers an ancient whistle in the sands with the words “And who is it that is coming?” inscribed in Latin. He blows through the whistle, and soon, in the indistinct horizon where the sea meets the sky, he sees a figure running, unreally, towards him….
Miller’s only other film project of this era was a version of Alice in Wonderland (1966) starring Peter Sellers and Peter Cook. Unfortunately neither of them are very funny in it, but it doesn’t matter, as the project is saved by a slowly building, beautifully hallucinatory ambience, centred around Anne-Marie Mallik as Alice, and the English woods and trees she drifts through, in floods of sunlight, at the height of summer. To the sound of none other than … Ravi Shankar.
When Peter Blake was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists he painted some very similar depictions of Alice, which reminds me to note that the Brotherhood (and sisterhood) are still active, and still exhibiting in 2009. And there was recently a monograph on Atkinson Grimshaw published in the UK. I just wish Jonathan Miller would make another TV film.