Gardening: Portrait of the artist's wife as a young lady: Anna Pavord continues her monthly series on gardens in paintings with In the Pleasaunce, Atkinson Grimshaw's elegant Victorian period piece

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'MUST paint Fanny in the garden,' Atkinson Grimshaw scribbled in his sketchbook in 1875. The result is In the Pleasaunce, showing Fanny Grimshaw, the artist's wife, in the front garden of their fine house on the outskirts of Leeds. Anyone who wants to create a period garden to go with a mid-Victorian villa could find no better copybook.

Fanny, in her muslin-draped dress, does not look as though she did much muckspreading or pruning herself. The Grimshaws, whose census returns show a cook and a maid living at their house, Knostrop Hall, must have had a gardener, too.

Certainly somebody there was interested in gardening, for the plot shows all the hallmarks of current fashion, both in its layout and its planting. Perhaps the Grimshaws contributed to Floral World, whose editor, Shirley Hibberd, was the final arbiter of taste for the middle classes. Perhaps Fanny gave Atkinson Gardens of England, published in 1856, as a Christmas present.

A crazy-paved path leads behind the garden seat and along the front of the house. On square plinths stand two imposing urns, probably made from reconstituted stone. You could get something similar from Haddonstone today for pounds 75 or so. The pots are planted with golden variegated geraniums, bred and hybridised with fanatical fervour in the middle of the 19th century to cater for the new craze for bedding-out.

Grimshaw's painting clearly shows that these are zonal pelargoniums rather than regals. Silver and gold variegated types were both on the market by the 1850s and they became archetypal flowers of the mid-Victorian garden, extensively used for carpet bedding. Several of these Victorian variegated pelargoniums are still available today. Look for 'A Happy Thought', 'Caroline Schmidt', 'Crystal Palace Gem', 'Freak of Nature', 'Golden Harry Hieover', 'Lass o' Gowrie', 'Mrs Parker' and 'Mrs Pollock'.

In clumps round the edges of the urns are pale-blue lobelias, introduced, like the geranium, from South Africa. This area, together with South America, was the hunting ground for many of the most popular bedding plants of the period: petunias, calceolarias, salvias and verbenas.

More lobelias surround the spiky agaves growing in the green-painted half-barrels arranged along the paths. At the back of Knostrop Hall there must have been a greenhouse or a conservatory where these handsome exotics from Mexico could be wintered. In fact, one of Grimshaw's paintings, Il Penseroso, completed in the same year, shows such a conservatory. It is packed with exotic foliage plants, fancy begonias, the silver-leaved Japanese fern and orchids hanging from square wooden baskets.

A grey-green-painted formal trellis softens the plain heavy masonry of the side of the house behind the sitter. At the boundary of the garden, on the left of the picture, is a more informal trellis, perhaps built on site, rectangular slats of wood at the bottom with tall diamond shapes fixed on top. This makes a useful open structure on which to train climbing plants for an informal screen.

The main entrance to the house lay between the gate piers whose pinnacles and balls are clearly shown in this picture and in several others that Grimshaw painted of his house. The layout in the front is formal. The path leading to the front door divides the space in two. The lawns either side of the path are broken up by symmetrically shaped beds.

The circular bed partly hidden by the urn is edged with a neat ribbon of some golden-leaved foliage plant. This is probably golden feverfew, still a favourite for the floral clocks and formal bedding displays in our parks. The earth in the bed has been mounded up towards the centre to give the maximum room for planting.

The same golden foliage plant edges the beds around the far lawn and makes a continuous ribbon along the front of the border behind Mrs Grimshaw. This formal style of bedding was much in vogue with the Victorians, feverfew backed by white alyssum, yellow calceolarias and scarlet geraniums. People used to flock to the Crystal Palace to admire displays just like this. Only William Robinson of Gravetye in Sussex, proponent of a wilder, more natural style of garden, kicked against the trend.

A much looser, more natural mixture of flowers is evident in the beds in the foreground of the painting. There are no formal edgings here. There is a tall white, wild-looking daisy, some seedheads of poppy, plenty more pelargoniums and some extremely showy lilies, L. auratum by the look of them, flat, wide-flared trumpets with prominent stamens.

These lilies were widely advertised in the horticultural magazines and catalogues of the time. You could buy them for pounds 15 a thousand, big bulbs too, up to 13in around. Today you would have to pay at least pounds 4 for a single bulb.

The lilies (from Japan) and the parasol are evidence that the craze for all things oriental was as strong in Leeds as it was in the more effete South. In Grimshaw's interiors of Knostrop, you find round Japanese fans, plenty of blue-and-white china and tall ginger jars as well.

The series of paintings that he made of his house and garden in 1875 are not typical of his work. He was known as the moonlight man: he specialised in landscapes, urban more than rural, seen at night, suffused by the strange light of the moon. Occasionally he tried out a sunset by way of variation.

Liverpool, Scarborough and Whitby provided his inspiration, as well as Leeds, his birthplace. He was not one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, but his pictures share their obsession with detail, with an exact rendering rather than an idealisation of nature. That quality makes them valuable research tools.

He was born, the son of a policeman, in 1836, and started his working life as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway Company. Painting was a hobby, one fiercely opposed by his Nonconformist parents. It was only after his marriage that he became a professional painter.

There was evidently no shortage of patrons in Leeds. Like other places strong on textiles, the city was booming. In the 40 years following Grimshaw's birth, its population doubled. Civic rivalry, always strong in Yorkshire, meant there was no shortage of venues for aspiring artists to show their works.

In his early years, Grimshaw showed paintings at the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, and at the National Exhibition of Works of Art held in Leeds' new Infirmary in 1868. The city art gallery was not opened until 1888, just five years before his death.

Grimshaw prospered with Leeds. Only 10 years after he started painting full time, he was evidently earning enough to install himself and his family (Fanny bore 15 children, though not all of them survived) in a handsome stone manor two miles east of the town. A photograph taken at the time shows a man with thoughtful eyes, close-croppped curly hair and the kind of ludicrous beard that looks as if it has come straight from a theatrical props box.

Here at Knostrop Old Hall (demolished in 1960), the year after he had had his first picture accepted at the Royal Academy, Grimshaw changed tack dramatically and painted the series of domestic pictures, all oils on canvas, that includes In the Pleasaunce. Why? Perhaps he wanted to record his having proudly arrived in a place far from his roots. Perhaps he was influenced by James Tissot (one of whose pictures sold for a record-breaking pounds 2m last week) who was painting similar kinds of pictures in London. Perhaps he just got tired of looking at the world by the light of the moon.

Many of Atkinson Grimshaw's paintings, including this one, are in private collections. The best public collection is in the Leeds City Art Gallery. You can also find his paintings in the Tate Gallery, the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth, the Bankfield Museum in Halifax, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and in the city galleries of Harrogate, Huddersfield, Preston and Wakefield. An excellent selection of his paintings is illustrated in Atkinson Grimshaw by Alexander Robertson (Phaidon pounds 25).

(Photograph omitted)