Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Painting Everyday Life

Resource created by Leeds Museums and Galleries | Leeds Art Gallery.

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.

John Atkinson Grimshaw was born in Leeds in 1836 and is well known for making paintings about the city. In this painting he pictures Leeds Bridge, a crossing point over the River Aire. Looking closely, the Leeds Bridge in 1880 was located in an area crammed with large-scale warehouses full of wrapped goods and factory buildings. There are lots of boats that look like they are waiting to transport along the river what is in the warehouses (heavy lifting equipment can be seen). The skyline is dominated by the outline of a church and more work-type buildings, including one with a very tall chimney.

It is interesting to ask, what feeling or atmosphere has the artist created? The water and the sky seem very still, for example.


Painting showing a bridge in Leeds near a working dock. There are people walking on the bridge.
Leeds Bridge by John Atkinson Grimshaw

The actual bridge isn’t pictured in detail, there is just enough to show people going about their daily lives – who are they, what are they doing, and how are they getting on with each other? It is interesting to ask how these people link to the industry implied by the work buildings. Is there a sense that the barely visible warehouse and boat workers are involved in hard and very tiring physical activity?

This artwork shows the economic and social life of Victorian era Leeds. It also shows how the artist's creative choices affect how we understand this time. There is lots that can be learnt, but what is missing. The large number of mills, factories, forges, places for selling and shipping goods, alongside quickly and badly made houses for the workers, made Leeds at the time a dirty, dangerous, place to work and live. Perhaps there is a clue in the policeman seen in the painting's bottom right hand corner, evidently Leeds was a place that needed policing.


Activity Ideas

  • Find and use art detective skills to explore other artworks by John Atkinson Grimshaw.
    - Ask yourself, what was he really interested in? Thinking about what things he most liked to paint and how he choose to paint them will give clues.
  • Taking inspiration from making something linked to a particular time, talk to people you know about what is going on in the world today. Listen carefully and make a list of the words they use. Then turn them into a Wordcloud (see 'Resources' for Wordcloud website)