Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) was a great-grandson of the artist. He inherited a substantial group of his ancestor’s works from his father, George Wyndham Girtin (1836–1912), in 1912, and he then set about adding to the collection before gifting it to his son, Tom Girtin (1913–94), around 1938 in an effort to avoid the payment of death duties, retaining the drawings in his possession until 1955 (Girtin Archive, 27). Thomas was particularly successful in acquiring early works, taking advantage of the private sale of the collection of the artist’s early patron James Moore (1762–99) around 1912, but he lacked the financial clout to compete for the more desirable works that came onto the art market. A lifetime’s study of the artist’s work culminated in the publication in 1954 of The Art of Thomas Girtin, which Thomas co-authored with David Loshak (Girtin and Loshak, 1954). The ambitious text balances an extended chapter titled ‘Girtin’s Stylistic Development’ with a series of detailed readings of the psychological, political and formalist contexts of the work of a ‘romantic’ artist facing a tragic early death. The results, not always satisfactory though always interesting, suggest that the professional art historian, Loshak, and the collector and writer, Girtin, had very different agendas. Thomas Girtin’s belief that a watercolour might be dated quite precisely from stylistic analysis alone also undermines the credibility of the text, though he comes into his own in the catalogue section, which he authored himself. Not all of the attributions have stood the test of time, but a lifetime’s worth of research, voluminous correspondence, and numerous visits to galleries and private collections ensured that his basic catalogue remains at the heart of this very different and much expanded electronic version.
The Girtin family collection of British drawings saw an expansion during the first part of the twentieth century with the acquisition of important groups of watercolours by Girtin’s contemporaries, including John Robert Cozens (1752–97). Therefore, in addition to his work on his ancestor, Thomas Girtin co-authored with Charles Francis Bell (1871–1966) ‘The Drawings and Sketches of John Robert Cozens: A Catalogue with an Historical Introduction’, published by the Walpole Society in 1935 (Bell and Girtin, 1935), and this provided some insights into his ancestor’s work for Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833). Research for this project is to be found in the family archive along with the mass of material about his ancestor that Thomas Girtin assembled during his life. This was deposited in the library of the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, where it has been catalogued (Girtin Archive) so that researchers can fully appreciate the efforts of a man who dedicated his life to establishing his ancestor’s artistic reputation.