17 March 2015

Isle of Wight - Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Grimshaw

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) reached the peak of his career in 1850 when he was appointed Poet Laureate. But he was finding celebrity dif­f­icult to cope with in London, so he sought a quiet location where he could remain undisturbed  ..except for invited guests. But why did he select the Isle of Wight? As it happened, Queen Victoria had a small palace built on the Isle of Wight in the late 1840s, near the northern town of Cowes. She made it her summer home for many years, thus Osborne House quickly became a major holid­ay attraction for fashionable Victorians. Perhaps Tennyson thought himself fashionable.

Tennyson in a large cape and broad hat

The Tennysons moved to Isle of Wight in 1853 and scouted around Freshwater Bay, on the far western tip of the island. The Georgian house they selected, Farring­ford, had great views of the chalk cliffs which spectacularly dropped into the rough surf below. Pacing the Down daily, and dressed rather romantically in a cape and wide brimmed hat, the poet used the dram­atic scenery as an inspiration for years. During his time there he wrote many of his most famous works, including The Charge of the Light Brigade and Maud.

The Tennysons loved Farringford and bought the property in 1856 with money earned from the public­ation of Maud. And so beg­an the happiest era in Tennyson's life. Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron moved to the Isle of Wight in 1860 when she bought Dimbola in Freshwater; she rapidly became a close colleague of Tennyson. Other visitors to the house in­cluded artists William Holman Hunt, George Frederick Watts, Sir John Ever­ett Millais, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and John Waterhouse.

Since 2009 parts of the house have been opened as a museum. The library holds Tennyson’s writing desk, letters and photographs by his colleague Julia Margaret Cameron and portraits by his friend GF Watts. And although the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln holds the family archives, temporary loans to Farringford help the viewer slip back into mid Victorian days.


Now comes the part of Isle of Wight life that I knew nothing about. Richard Green discussed an atmospheric and moonlit painting of Bonchurch Village, Isle of Wight 1880 by John Atkinson Grim­shaw (1836–1893) . Clearly the village of Bon­church was extremely popular during the C19th with artists, poets and writers. For example in 1849 Charles Dickens stayed at the Winterbourne Hotel at the end of Bonchurch Village Road and whilst there, wrote his drafts of David Copperfield.

But who took the young artist Grim­shaw’s (1836–1893) breath away? Alfred, Lord Tennyson! Grimshaw loved Tennyson’s work and frequently tried to visualise not only his literary heroes and heroines, but also the evocation of nostalgic twilight in his poetry. A Moonlit Stroll in Bonchurch, Isle of Wight 1878 was very similar and had been clearly painted from the same vantage point as the Bonchurch Village painting. In addition, look for Figure on a Moonlit Lane, St John’s Road Ryde, Isle of Wight that Grimshaw painted in 1880 and The Gossips Bonchurch, Isle of Wight 1881.

Bonchurch, Isle of Wight 1880
31 x 46 cm
Richard Green London

Taken from Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott, (published in 1833 and again in 1842) the subject of the dead lady in a boat floating down the river inspired a number of artists, incl­ud­ing John Atkinson Grimshaw. This theme interested him because of the sensuality suggested by dead lady's recumbent body; that she died for love of Sir Lancelot only increased the decad­ent attraction of the union of death and beauty. Grimshaw painted the dead Lady of Shalott floating down the river in her funeral barge after having done a sim­ilar painting, Elaine, in 1877. Both romantic paintings conveyed the atmosph­eric still­ness of the dead lady as she floated through the night. Was it a surprise, then, that the romantic Grim­shaw went on to name five of his children after char­ac­­ters in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: Gertrude, Enid, Arthur, Lancelot and Elaine?

Elaine, 1877
122 x 83 cm
private collection

The technique and realism of Pre-Raphaelite style, as well as the intensity and role of colour, inevitably influenced Grimshaw's landscapes. And exactly as the Pre-Raphaelites drew on contemporary poetry and literature to inspire their art work, so Grimshaw was inspired by contemporary literature as well. I can easily trace Grimshaw's painting projects on the Isle of Wight. Yet my key question remains a mystery - did Tennyson and Grimshaw actually chat together at Tennyson's home? or anywhere else on the Isle of Wight?


Kimberly Eve said...

Hi Hels,
Lovely post. Just loved reading it.
As of yet, I have not come across any reference to Grimshaw in any of the 19th century Tennyson biographies, letters, family correspondence, etc., at all. If I ever encounter him, I will send you the source and the details. So far, my understanding is that Grimshaw was just a true fan of Alfred Tennyson, and through admiration named his children and some themed works accordingly. So glad you covered this topic.

Deb said...

I was excited to find a catalogue of Grimshaw’s art, where there is a page on the painting called Bonchurch, Isle of Wight 1880. It is not known if Grimshaw ever visited the Isle of Wight. Jane Abdy suggests he went to the island in 1880. Others have suggested that he based his depictions of the popular village street on a photograph, or perhaps a postcard, as is the case with several of his Lakes District scenes.

Find the catalogue at http://issuu.com/artsolution/docs/r._green_-_john_atkinson_grimshaw/56

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Through old photographs, I have come to realize what a general favorite the Isle of Wight was for natural features, village scenes, and fine houses (not even including the handsome Osborne House). So it is easy to see why it became a favorite of painters and writers.

I wonder if Tennyson would have considered Grimshaw a social equal? Even though he named his children after Tennyson's characters, after all, many of the families that named their daughter after Melba probably never met the singer.

By the way, the blog Where Five Valleys Meet did a general retrospective of Grimshaw a while ago:

Andrew said...

I was curious about Osborne House. It does have an interesting history and is now owned by the people.

Hels said...

Kimberly Eve

I keep coming across the statement that while Tennyson was a great letter writer, Grimshaw was not. That leaves later generations with no information about Grimshaw's thinking, except what was in the final versions of his paintings.

Hopefully you will find some record of their meeting. Many thanks.

Hels said...


I love it when students/readers find a reference I didn't know about myself. Thank you.

Sotheby's (22/5/2014) wrote Grimshaw is known to have made a painting expedition to the Lakes with his wife in 1868. Other Lake District scenes dated 1864 and 1865 suggest return visits in those years, although it is likely that Grimshaw used photographs at this time to aid his paintings and may have used them to inform these pictures.

A photograph album that once belonged to Grimshaw (now at Leeds City Art Gallery) certainly provided Grimshaw with the basis for at least two strikingly detailed Pre-Raphaelite paintings.


Hels said...


Where Five Valleys Meet has a lovely collection of Grimshaws, thank you. I did note that all the paintings were identified by their location (eg Leeds, Lake District) except for the one of the Isle of Wight.

I too wonder if Tennyson would have considered Grimshaw a social equal. They differed on social class, education and income, and they were a generation apart in age. Lastly Grimshaw converted to Catholicism - would Protestant Tennyson and his circle have cared?

Hels said...


the Isle of Wight must have been a very quiet little place until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert moved in. Built as a rather gorgeous Italian Renaissance palazzo, I don't suppose Osborne House was modest or squishy, but it was a favourite family retreat because of its rural and beachy peacefulness.

The Tennyson family was eventually invited to Osborne House to meet the royals. I assume this was because Prince Albert in particular admired the poet.

PRB said...

When we looked at the Pre-Raphaeltes in lectures, one of the blogs that was very useful was The Kissed Mouth.

You mentioned William Holman Hunt, George Frederick Watts, Sir John Ever­ett Millais, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and John Waterhouse were regular visitors. The blog adds that Watts so enjoyed visiting Tennyson that his family also bought a house near Farringford and moved in. Ditto the entire Prinsep family! And the artist Cecil Schott.

Tennyson must have had a very active social and intellectual life on the Isle of Wight.

Hels said...


I assume when Tennyson sought a quiet location where he could remain undisturbed, he meant _only_ from autograph hunters and paparazzi. As you say, his house on the Isle of Wight must have been chockers with the Great and Good of British literary and artistic society.

And once other families followed the Tennysons to the Isle of Wight, I imagine that those other families also entertained Tennyson and his colleagues in their homes.

National Gallery of Victoria said...

Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Exhibition
11th April-12th July 2015

The National Gallery of Victoria’s holdings of works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their close associates are world renowned. The collection reflects the role of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, their place in the development of the illustrated book and their profound influence on later generations of artists.

The NGV’s collection has recently been significantly augmented with a number of key works. This exhibition comes from the NGV, and includes key works in private collectors and institutions in Melbourne.

Hels said...

Thank you. I didn't realise the NGV had an impressive holding of Pre-Raphaelites and I had not seen any advertising for the exhibition.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels,

Did you see the ad for the Victorian sale at Sotheby's on December 14th?
http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2017/victorian-pre-raphaelite-british-impressionist-art-l17133.html It has been a while since your posting on him, but thanks to you, I recognized the thumbnail of John Grimshaw's unmistakable work from a mile away!

Take care,


Hels said...


thank you for your note. I had no idea about the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art in London which are in any case so pricey now that I can but dream of the days when I had a good income. There is one Grimshaw I love, one Stanhope and one Seago to die for!