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Works Thomas Girtin

A Cottage amongst Trees

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1430: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Cottage amongst Trees, 1798–99, graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper, 24.8 × 33.5 cm, 9 ¾ × 13 ¼ in. Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (D.1967.WS.51).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Cottage amongst Trees
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper
24.8 × 33.5 cm, 9 ¾ × 13 ¼ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Picturesque Vernacular

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Horace Bernard Milling (1898–1953); then by descent to his widow Mercie Winifred Milling (née Sanderson) later Mercie Spooner (1902–90); presented to the Gallery, together with the Spooner bequest, 1967

Exhibition History

London, 1968b, no.48; Bath, 1969, no.34; Bristol, 1973, no.29; London, 1974b, no.30; London, 1977, no.20; London, 2005, no.52

About this Work

A Cottage, near Witham, Essex

This image of a picturesque domestic building next to a pond is one of a series of views of vernacular structures embowered within a woodland setting that Girtin executed around 1798–99. Some of these were commissioned by Girtin’s father-in-law, Phineas Borrett (1756–1843), and they show the Essex farm buildings that the prosperous London goldsmith had bought as an investment (for example, see TG1413 and TG1414). What initially appear to be picturesque compositions produced from the imagination, similar to the rural scenes of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), were in fact studied from life, and it may be that the majority of Girtin’s cottage scenes, including this example, depict actual examples of the nation’s vernacular architecture. Indeed, from the titles that Girtin appended to the rural views he showed at the Royal Academy’s exhibitions, it seems that he was keen to emphasise that they were not simply picturesque compositions following the popular conventions of the day. Thus, the mill scene he showed in 1798 was stated to be ‘in Devonshire’ (TG1427), and a ‘Cottage’ in the same exhibition was taken ‘from nature’ (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1798, nos.677 and 575). In all of this, Girtin was following the example of Thomas Hearne (1744–1817) and his watercolours such A Cottage, near Witham, Essex (see figure 1). Hearne’s sketches of vernacular buildings in the southern counties featured prominently in the collection of the artists’ mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), and Girtin copied some of them at Monro’s home at the Adelphi (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 1 July 1833, lots 109 and 113). I am not sure that Girtin displays the same ‘reverence for vernacular buildings as symbolic of a simple, honest and laborious rural life’ that David Morris has discerned in Hearne’s work, but examples such as this view of a substantial cottage or farmhouse follow the same formula, with a similar close attention paid to the local materials used in the building’s construction (Morris, 1989, p.128). We may not know precisely where the building was sketched, but I suspect that an architectural historian with a specialist knowledge of eighteenth-century vernacular buildings might be able to work out its location and that it might just turn out to be in Essex too.

The watercolour has faded noticeably, with the blue of the sky, the grey of the clouds and the green of the vegetation having either disappeared or changed to a range of brown and earth colours. No doubt the work has been exhibited in strong light and this has facilitated the fading process, but fundamentally it was Girtin’s choice of fugitive pigments used in multiple thin washes that caused the problem. Just two unstable pigments, probably blue indigo and yellow gamboge, would have been enough to account for much of the deterioration seen here. The artist did use another blue pigment, perhaps ultramarine, for the reflections in the pond as well as on the figures and for a few highlights in the foliage, and this gives some clue as to the work’s original appearance. Unusually for this sort of scene, the artist did not use any bodycolour for the highlights, and this might suggest a slightly later date than the 1798 generally given for the series as a whole.

(?) 1799

Pinckney’s Farm, Radwinter


(?) 1799

Turver’s Farm, Wimbish


1798 - 1799

An Overshot Mill


by Greg Smith

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