Edward Dayes (1763–1804) (see TG1924 figure 1) was one of the leading topographical watercolourists of the older generation, producing impressive works such as Hereford Cathedral from the River (see TG0155 figure 1) and oils including Rochester (see TG0071 figure 1). Moreover, Dayes was a noted writer on both the technical and theoretical bases of the visual arts, and he must have appeared to be the ideal master for a young aspiring artist. Girtin signed his indentures as an apprentice to ‘Edwd Days St Martins in the Fields Middx painter’ on 15 May 1789 ‘to serve 7 years’, with his family paying a dividend of thirty guineas.1 Girtin, aged fourteen years and three months at the time of his move to Dayes’ studio at 75 Long Acre, Covent Garden, would therefore have become a master in May 1796 if he had completed his term, but this was not to happen. Although an early account of his time as an apprentice suggested that Dayes had Girtin arrested and imprisoned for breaking the terms of his apprenticeship, it is increasingly clear that the two came to an agreement by which the young artist paid off his indentures by producing watercolours for sale on the open market (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, pp.102–3.2 In all, Dayes thus consigned more than thirty drawings by Girtin to the sale rooms of Thomas Greenwood, beginning as early as June 1791, when the artist was only sixteen. Amongst the works sold was almost certainly a recently discovered view, Rochester Castle, from the River Medway (TG0057), which suggests that by 1792 Girtin had little more to learn from his master, so thoroughly had the precociously talented student assimilated Dayes’ distinctive style. It is also clear that the humdrum tasks allocated to the apprentice, such as colouring Dayes’ prints (TG0061), further stretched the relationship between master and pupil. Typically of the young artist’s works at this time, the Rochester view, one of four of the Kent city, was made from a sketch by Dayes (see TG0057 figure 1), and indeed a large proportion of the works produced in his master’s studio were based on his outline drawings. This would continue to be the case for the next few years, until the patronage of James Moore (1762–99) and others enabled Girtin to travel outside London, firstly in 1794 and then again in 1796. Nonetheless, Girtin continued to use his former master’s sketches as a valuable resource. Working at the home of Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) around 1795–96, Girtin made copies of some of the numerous sketches by Dayes that were in the collection of his new patron (TG0362).

Dayes’ typically abrasive opinion on Girtin is preserved in a short biography that was published posthumously following the master’s suicide in May 1804. ‘Biography’, he wrote, ‘is useful to … enable us to shun the fatal consequences of vice’, suggesting that in this case Girtin had allowed his ‘passions to overpower … reason’. ‘Though his drawings are generally too slight’, Dayes continued, ‘yet they must ever be admired as the offspring of a strong imagination. Had he not trifled away a vigorous constitution, he might have arrived at a very high degree of excellence as a landscape painter’ (Dayes, Works, p.329). Dayes’ Professional Sketches of Modern Artists was published posthumously in 1805 in The Works of the Late Edward Dayes edited by Edward Wedlake Brayley. The sharply critical biography of ‘GIRTIN THOMAS. – LANDSCAPE’ is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive.3 From our perspective, it is clear that it is precisely because Girtin was able to favour ‘passions’ and ‘imagination’ over ‘reason’ that he was able to transcend the example of his master, and it is no small part of his achievement that he was able to effectively terminate his apprenticeship at the age of seventeen or eighteen.

1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin



Hereford Cathedral, from the River Wye


1791 - 1792

Rochester, from the North


(?) 1791

Rochester Castle, from the River Medway



First Regiment of Foot Guards, 1660: Officer and Subaltern


(?) 1791

Rochester Castle, from the River Medway


1795 - 1796

Raby Castle



  1. 1 The National Archives (IR1/33)
  2. 2 Thornbury’s biography of Turner includes extensive anecdotal detail about Girtin’s life and career and although the text is often frankly fanciful in character it contains some useful details and the sections relating to Girtin have been transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1862 – Item 1).
  3. 3 1805 – Item 1

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