Atkinson Grimshaw, Reflections on the Thames (1880): Explorations in the Cultural History of Light and Illumination

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The periods in which each new or refined form of artificial lighting have become dominant have presented their illumination as characteristic of the highest state of progress, as a significant stage of linear development that has lifted humanity out of a state of nature. Meanwhile, the everyday use of lighting has been complex, driven by practicality, expediency and materiality, not “progress”. This paper explores these uses, the reception and meanings of artificial illumination during the nineteenth century, through the lens of Atkinson Grimshaw’s Reflections on the Thames (1880). The rapidity of modernity is now often coded against slow ‘nature’ and read as an urban force allowing no peace to the country. Yet, in this painting, situated within a long history of nocturnes and landscapes, we see an interplay of artificial (gas, oil, electric) and natural (moon) light, each consumed within metropolitan culture, each generating intricate pools of human experience and identity, all cut through by water as axis of wellbeing and of commerce. In this painting we see how a Victorian genre artist, reflecting on the Thames, created a narrative of London as an unsleeping, working Capital, framed by nature, illuminated, yet shady, multifaceted, effortful.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-148
JournalAnnali di Ca’ Foscari. Serie occidentale.
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sept 2017


  • Grimshaw, Atkinson
  • Water
  • Lighting technology
  • Thames
  • shipping


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