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Works Thomas Girtin

A Cliff-Top View, Probably on the Coast of Dorset

1797 - 1798

Primary Image: TG1239: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Cliff-Top View, Probably on the Coast of Dorset, 1797–98, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 38 × 28 cm, 15 × 11 in. Leeds Art Gallery (16/35).

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images, Leeds City Art Gallery (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Cliff-Top View, Probably on the Coast of Dorset
1797 - 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
38 × 28 cm, 15 × 11 in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
255 as 'Coast of Dorset'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and February 2020


Edward Cohen (1817–86); then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); J. Palser & Sons as 'Ravine'; bought by Arthur Acland Allen (1868–1939), 8 March 1927; his sale, Sotheby’s, 4 April 1935, lot 59 as 'Landscape, with a distant view of a plain across two steep slopes in the foreground, on the left a lake partly seen'; bought by the Fine Art Society, London, £148; bought from them by the Museum, 1935

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1931, no.97 as ’Lake Nemi’; Arts Council, 1951, no.80 as ’Near Lulworth Cove’; London, 1951, no.480 as ’Coast of Dorsetshire’; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.34; Geneva, 1955, no.67; Leeds, 1958, no.46; London, 1959, no.720; London, 1960, no.66; Washington, 1962c, no.44; Tokyo, 1970, no.77; Manchester, 1975, no.38 as ’Coast of Dorset, near Lulworth Cove’; Dortmund, 1979, no.17; New York, 1981, no.19; Paris, 1989, no.92; London, 1993, no.138; Leeds, 1995, no.35; London, 2002, no.111


Mayne, 1949, p.60, p.101; Boase, 1959, p.34; Mayne, 1962, p.241; Wilton and Lyles, 1993, p.177; Smith, 2002a, p.217

About this Work

The identity of the location of this scene has never been established with any degree of certainty, though an early suggestion that the water shown to the left is a ‘lake’ (Exhibitions: Sotheby’s, 4 April 1935, lot 59) has given way to a consensus that it is coastal view. On the basis that the work shares a number of features with the coastal scenes that Girtin made on or following his tour of the West Country in 1797, and the fact that the artist exhibited a watercolour at the exhibition of the Royal Academy in the following year titled ‘Coast of Dorsetshire’, it is now generally accepted that the view was taken in Dorset and, since the cliff-top scenery near Lulworth Cove is recognised as being particularly spectacular, the identification has often been narrowed down further (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.342). However, there is no specific evidence to link this work to the 1798 exhibit, and the larger, more finished and less unconventional The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below (TG1251) surely has a stronger claim to be the work shown publicly. Moreover, the fact that a number of people who know the geography of the area have given contradictory explanations of the view – inland to Arish Mell from near Lulworth, or further west looking towards Osmington Bay – suggests to me that what topographical details Girtin provides are handled in such an ambiguous and distorted way that no definitive conclusion about the location can be drawn from the work alone. That said, a general principle when assessing Girtin’s more problematic subjects is that given that the artist rarely, if ever, made a detour unless there was a commission for a view of a well-known site, we should look to locations in the immediate proximity of places that we know that he visited – meaning, in this case, Weymouth and Lyme Regis itself.

The fact that the precise subject of the watercolour has proved impossible to pin down is hardly surprising given that it constitutes one of Girtin’s most uncompromising rejections of picturesque conventions, something that, together with its disregard for norms of finish, would no doubt have disqualified it as an exhibition piece. The distance consists of a conventional enough landscape, comparable with the elevated views taken above Lyme Regis (such as TG1254), but this is cut into by an extraordinary foreground comprising a flat wall of rock plunged into the darkest shadow, which all but hides a male figure, who adopts, almost unnoticed, a melancholic pose. The area of sea is again unremarkable, but it gives way, in turn, to a vertiginous cliff that rears up to the left in a way that has no clear spatial relation to the view inland or to the rock in front. One is readily reminded of the extraordinary composition developed by John Robert Cozens (1752–97) in his view of Castel Sant’Elmo in Naples (see TG0736 figure 1), from which Girtin, together with his colleague Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), produced a watercolour version for their mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) at about this date (TG0736) – except that whilst Cozens manages to keep the relationship between the foreground and the massive looming wall of the castle in balance, there is a sense here that the extra element of the distance has tipped the work into the category of an ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful, experiment in the category of the landscape of the Sublime.

1797 - 1798

The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below


1797 - 1798

Above Lyme Regis, Looking across Marshwood Vale


1794 - 1797

Naples: Castel Sant’Elmo


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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