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Works (?) Thomas Girtin

A Barn with a Figure, Cattle and Poultry

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG0924: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Barn with a Figure, Cattle and Poultry, 1796–97, graphite on wove paper, 19.5 × 26.7 cm, 7 ⅝ × 10 ½ in. Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (D.1952.RW.1173).

Photo courtesy of The Courtauld, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (All Rights Reserved)

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Barn with a Figure, Cattle and Poultry
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
19.5 × 26.7 cm, 7 ⅝ × 10 ½ in
Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Picturesque Vernacular

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2008 and March 2023


Charles Stokes (1785–1853); then by descent to Thomas Hughes; then by descent to his neice, Alice Ellen Hughes; her sale, Sotheby's, 28 November 1922, lot 149 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; bought by Sir Robert Clermont Witt (1872–1952), £6; bequeathed to the Gallery, 1952

Exhibition History

London, 2008, no.6 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner

About this Work

A Barn

This drawing of a thatched barn has always been attributed to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) and, indeed, there is a signed watercolour of the same subject by Girtin’s great contemporary (see figure 1). Unfortunately, the watercolour has not been seen in public for many years and it is known only from a poor black and white photograph, and we do not even have a record of its dimensions. The two works are clearly closely related, as can be demonstrated by overlaying their images: every detail of the architecture and the farm scene, down to the chickens and the cattle, matches up precisely, and this has inevitably suggested to some that the pencil drawing was produced by Turner as a study for the watercolour. This hypothesis is problematic on a number of grounds, however, not least because there is no incontrovertible proof that the watercolour is by Turner and that the signature, for instance, is genuine. The first stumbling block relates to the sheer quantity of detail included in the drawing, which is incompatible with Turner’s sketching practice, as seen, for example, in figure 2. In sketches such as this contemporary view of a mill, Turner was typically content to record the minimum of information needed to execute a studio watercolour when details such as the cattle, chicken and a figure would have been improvised. If not an on-the-spot sketch, then it is equally unlikely that the pencil drawing was produced in the studio in preparation for the watercolour: a small-genre scene was not the sort of high-value commodity that could justify the expenditure of time and effort involved in another stage in its production. Equally problematic for the notion that the drawing has a clear, direct relationship to Turner’s watercolour are questions about its authorship. In her catalogue entry for the work, Joanna Selborne notes that Andrew Wilton has suggested that the right-hand cow may be by Girtin, rather than Turner (Selborne, 2008, p.53). Assuming that the drawing is not a highly improbable collaboration, I would go a step further and argue that the whole of it is actually by Girtin, citing the example of the comparable drawing The Refectory, St Martin’s Priory, Dover (TG0298). The sheer range of inventive marks employed by the artist, combined with the subtle shifts in the pressure applied to the graphite, which result in an engaging variety of tones, are more typical of Girtin’s superior skill as a draughtsman, I suggest.

A Watermill, with the Corner of a Large Barn or a Church

As is so often the case, the key to establishing the attribution of this drawing lies as much with understanding its function as with the issue of the artist’s personal style. In the present case, this means recognising that the drawing is not an on-the-spot sketch but a copy of a work by another artist, and that in all probability it was therefore produced at the home of Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833). It is not, I hasten to add, a copy by Girtin after the watercolour (though it may predate the pencil drawing), but rather both works were made after a common source. It certainly makes no more sense for Girtin to have copied Turner’s watercolour than it would for Turner to have made such a detailed pencil drawing as well. However, such was the scale of copying at Monro’s house – Girtin and Turner were responsible individually and jointly for as many as four hundred copies after a large number of artists – that it is likely that this was the location of the production of this drawing. A comparison with another view of a picturesque thatched barn with numerous farmyard figures by Girtin (TG0913) is instructive here. That work was possibly made after an untraced drawing by Thomas Hearne (1744–1817), and it may be that he provided the model here too, both for Girtin’s drawing and for the watercolour. If that should prove to be the case, we may find that the watercolour, if or when it reappears, may yet turn out to be a Monro School collaboration between Turner and Girtin. That would indeed explain how two identical versions of the same subject, in pencil and in watercolour, came to be produced by the two artists either individually or in combination. Such was the prevalence of copying and collaborating between Girtin and Turner at this juncture in their careers that attributional problems are inevitable and some must remain unresolved, as here, pending further information.

Image Overlay

(?) 1795

The Refectory, St Martin’s Priory, Dover


1794 - 1795

A Thatched Barn with Farm Animals


by Greg Smith

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