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Works Thomas Girtin

A Distant View of Kirkstall Abbey

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1638: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Distant View of Kirkstall Abbey, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 22.4 × 31.2 cm, 8 ⅞ × 12 ¼ in. Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead (BIKGM1030).

Photo courtesy of Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Distant View of Kirkstall Abbey
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
22.4 × 31.2 cm, 8 ⅞ × 12 ¼ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
285 as 'Kirkstall Abbey'; '1798–9'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Dr Albert Victor Peatling (1864–1922); Cotswold Gallery, London, 1923; bought from them, £100

Exhibition History

Cotswold Gallery, 1923b, no.16; Ravenna, 2004, no.59

About this Work

This little-known distant view of what appears to be Kirkstall Abbey, seen from a tree-lined track to the south, is in excellent condition, though how much it can be used as a guide to the original appearance of the three larger watercolours of the famous ruins, each of which has faded to a differing degree, is open to question (TG1635, TG1636 and TG1637). For, though the work may show the same subject, its smaller scale reflects a very different aesthetic, and I suspect that it was produced to meet the different demands of the market for Girtin’s sketches. Indeed, I am by no means convinced that the watercolour is not at least partly a work of the imagination and that its ostensible similarity to Kirkstall is actually used to help create the illusion that it was sketched on the spot, even though the careful, multiple layering of washes indicates that it is a studio work. Rather than a contrast with the larger late views of Kirkstall, therefore, the comparison that springs more readily to mind when looking at the work is with Trees in a Glade Overlooking a Lake (TG1404), which reimagines a composition by John Robert Cozens (1752–97), View on the Galleria di Sopra, Lake Albano (see TG1404 figure 1), which the artist could not have seen for himself. A series of late tree studies, such as A Torrent by a Clump of Trees (TG1770), similarly purport to have been sketched on the spot but actually appear to be exercises in a type of naturalistic imaginative landscape. In contrast, the large Kirkstall views may have moved on from their antiquarian precedents, but they are still rooted in a topographical tradition that is alien to this different commodity. Even the resting traveller, familiar from many of Girtin’s landscape views, seems out of place here when worked on such a disproportionate scale.

The illusion that this work was produced at speed as a spontaneous response to a newly discovered vista is enhanced by the artist’s retention of the vertical drying fold seen to the right. This ‘unsightly’ side effect of the production process involved in handmade paper, which saw the sheet left to dry folded on a rope, was said by early writers to be prized by a certain type of collector as a sign of Girtin’s ‘originality’, and the artist’s willingness to leave it prominently visible at the edge of this sheet is one of the more wilful instances of his determination to break down the boundaries between the sketch and the studio watercolour (Pyne, 1823a, p.67).1 Another distant view of Kirkstall Abbey has been attributed to Girtin in the past (see figure 1), though it was not included in the catalogue of the artist’s watercolours published by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak (Girtin and Loshak, 1954). Even though the drawing was said to have come from the collection of the artist’s son, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74), prior to being sold from the family collection in 1884, it is clear that the watercolour is not by Girtin. Indeed, it seems to be partly based on an engraving of a view of Kirkstall Abbey by Edward Dayes (1763–1804) (see figure 2) that was not published until 1808, though it could of course have been worked from an untraced sketch.


Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill


1800 - 1801

Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning



Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening


1799 - 1800

Trees in a Glade Overlooking a Lake


1800 - 1801

A Torrent by a Clump of Trees


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The second in the series of articles on the ‘Rise and Progress of Painting in Water Colours’ written by William Henry Pyne (1769–1843) includes much detail about Girtin’s working practice. It is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1823 – Item 2).

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