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Works Thomas Girtin

A Distant View of Rievaulx Abbey

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1055: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Distant View of Rievaulx Abbey, 1796–97, graphite and watercolour on wove paper (watermark: WHATMAN), 9.7 × 12.8 cm, 3 ⅞ × 5 in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1177).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Distant View of Rievaulx Abbey
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper (watermark: WHATMAN)
9.7 × 12.8 cm, 3 ⅞ × 5 in

‘Bolton Abbey. York’ lower left, by (?) Thomas Girtin; ‘T. Girtin’ lower right in brown ink, by Thomas Girtin (the signature has been cut, suggesting that it once extended onto an original mount which has been lost)

Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
157 as 'Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire'; 'Water-Colour Sketch'; 'Probably 1796'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Elhanan Bicknell (1788–1861); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 29 April 1863, lot 6 as 'Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire - a sketch'; bought by 'Noseda', £1 2s; Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

Cambridge, 1920, no.37 as ’Bolton’; New Haven, 1986a, no.45 as ’Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire’

About this Work

This distant view of Rievaulx Abbey, seen from the north west, appears to have been coloured on the spot, and both Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak and Susan Morris date it to the artist’s first northern tour, in 1796 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.155; Morris, 1986, p.41). However, David Hill has noted that Rievaulx ‘would have been out of the line of sites that we know him to have visited in 1796’ and, pointing to the fact that Girtin exhibited two views of the abbey at the 1798 exhibition, including TG1056, he suggested that Girtin might have sketched the abbey in 1797, possibly at the time of his first visit to Harewood House (Hill, 1999, pp.22–23). There is no documentary evidence to substantiate the latter event, however, and, as with many of the sketches of Yorkshire, it is therefore simply not possible to conclusively assign this work to a precise date.

Whatever the date of its production, the work’s status as a sketch coloured on the spot seems pretty secure. Its small scale and the evident speed of its creation – with rapidly applied washes of colour in a limited palette recording the play of light on the building but leaving other areas undetermined – point to a sketch produced in the field. The fact that the inscription to the left, reading ‘Bolton Abbey. York’, is palpably incorrect does not undermine the argument either. Whilst the error might be explained as the fault of a later owner who added the inscription in ignorance, I suspect that it is in the same hand as the signature to the right, which I take to be by Girtin, and that both were added when the artist was preparing the drawing for sale at a later date. If that is the case, then the fact that the signature has been cut at the bottom may constitute significant evidence about the market for Girtin’s sketches towards the end of his career. The manner in which part of the signature has been lost suggests that it originally strayed onto a mount that was subsequently removed, so that it appears that the artist himself took an earlier coloured sketch and mounted, signed and inscribed it prior to a sale. A time gap of five or so years might therefore account for Girtin’s error in titling the work ‘Bolton Abbey’. We can perhaps get an idea of the sketch’s original appearance as a mounted image from what I take to be one of the few surviving examples of this way of presenting his drawings, Richmond Castle and Bridge, from the River Swale (TG1063), though this has yet to be confirmed by proper technical analysis of the materials used.

(?) 1798

Rievaulx Abbey


(?) 1796

Richmond Castle and Bridge, from the River Swale


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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