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Works Thomas Girtin

A Distant View of Bolton Abbey

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1614: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Distant View of Bolton Abbey, (?) 1800, watercolour on paper, 14.3 × 21 cm, 5 ⅝ × 8 ¼ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Distant View of Bolton Abbey
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Watercolour on paper
14.3 × 21 cm, 5 ⅝ × 8 ¼ in

‘Bolton Abby Yorks’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Part of
Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; River Scenery; Yorkshire View

A Distant View of Bolton Abbey (TG1681)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
378i as 'Bolton Abbey ... Done on the spot'; '1801'
Description Source(s)
Girtin Archive Photograph


Probably bought by Samuel Rogers (1763–1855), £8; ... Henry Oppenheimer (1859–1932); Lord Mackintosh; Professor Evelyn Davison Telford (1876–1961); his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 14 March 1962, lot 69; bought by the Fine Art Society, London, £520


Hardie, 1938–39, p.90

About this Work

This distant view of the ruins of Bolton Priory from the river Wharfe appears to have been detached from the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1323, TG1324 and TG1600–1625). Opposite the missing page is an inscription that reads ‘Bolton Abbey – Color’d on the spot sold to Mr. Rogers 8£’, and this has been interpreted to refer to the poet and collector Samuel Rogers (1763–1855). The drawing matches the dimensions of the Book of Drawings, it is certainly a depiction of Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire and it does appear to have been coloured on the spot, and yet such is the unconventional nature of the book that it is not entirely clear that a second version of the subject (TG1681) is not the work referred to in the inscription. The book, which I have deliberately not referred to as a sketchbook, contains a number of different papers that, from their watermarks and their arrangement within the binding, indicate that the contents includes a mix of copies from earlier works as well as sketches made on the spot. Moreover, the latter are divided into works sketched on and across bound sheets, and others drawn on separate pieces of paper and at some point bound in; given that the end paper has a watermark of ‘1803’, its final arrangement occurred after Girtin’s death (Bower, 2002, p.141). This, I suspect, was done at the behest of the artist’s brother John Girtin (1773–1821) who appropriated material from the artist’s studio after his death including ‘4 little Books partly of sketches and partly blank paper’, a combination that accords with the unusual makeup of the book (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804).1 The book, if it can truly be called that, therefore performed multiple functions. Girtin’s gathering of papers included, it seems, blank sheets on which he made on-the-spot sketches, as well as existing drawings; this meant that it could also be used as a sample book for patrons to chose subjects that might be realised for them as watercolours, and it is clear that the artist also sold his sketches from here, as no fewer than sixteen pages have been cut out, including this drawing. On the latter point, however, it must be noted that the inscriptions giving details of the sale of works from the book are not definitively in Girtin’s hand and it is not inconceivable that the pages were detached by an early owner of the volume, presumably the same person who had it bound. To return to the specific problem with this work, and bearing in mind that a good proportion of the drawings are copies purporting to be on-the-spot sketches, I wonder whether the rather more worked-up version, complete with cattle in the foreground and a more dramatic sky, was not the sheet sold to Rogers. That would certainly be more in keeping with the sale price of £8, which is more than Girtin was charging for a finished studio watercolour twice the size, so the fact that the sale was specified as being of a work ‘Color’d on the spot’ is just a confirmation of the premium placed on the artist’s sketches by sympathetic patrons, rather than a trustworthy description of the artist’s sketching practice.

Unfortunately, there are no details about the early provenance of either of the sketch-like versions of the distant view of Bolton Abbey that might link one of them definitively with the sale to Rogers, and there is no alternative at this stage but to accept a degree of uncertainty. Indeed, that is arguably what will inevitably happen whenever two characteristic aspects of Girtin’s work coincide: on the one hand, the artist’s desire to efface the boundaries between the spontaneous sketch and the considered studio work and, on the other, the growing demand from the art market for examples of the artist’s direct response to nature. For the record, I have a slight preference for the opinion that this work was the drawing made on the spot, probably in the summer of 1800, and that it is the drawing sold to Rogers; however, if this catalogue were in book form, I am not sure that a second edition might not contain a different conclusion.

The Rogers connection has an added interest from the fact that the writer used Bolton Abbey as the setting for his poem ‘The Boy of Egremond’ (1819) and that Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) subsequently provided two illustrations for the 1834 edition of his Poems, one of which shows the ruined priory from the same direction (Tate Britain, Turner Bequest (CCLXXX 179)). Turner may have seen Girtin’s drawing at Rogers’ home, which he is known to have visited on many occasions, though he certainly knew the location well enough not to have needed to refer to this sketch.

1800 - 1801

A Distant View of Bolton Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Details are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1804 – Item 1).

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