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Works Thomas Girtin

A Farmhouse in a Woodland Setting, Said to Be in Devon

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1429: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Farmhouse in a Woodland Setting, Said to Be in Devon, 1798–99, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 20 × 29.5 cm, 7 ⅞ × 11 ⅝ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1190).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Farmhouse in a Woodland Setting, Said to Be in Devon
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
20 × 29.5 cm, 7 ⅞ × 11 ⅝ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Picturesque Vernacular

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
259 as 'A Devonshire Farm'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001; Gallery Website as 'A Devonshire Farm'


Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911); by a settlement to his sister, Ida Johanna Hog Rogge, née Girtin (1834–1925), January 1880 as 'Water Mill at Derby'; given 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.21 as ’A Devon Farm’; Agnew’s, 1931, no.95; London, 1962a, no.143; New Haven, 1986a, no.53 as ’A Devonshire Farm c.1797’


Grundy, 1921b, p.102; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.66; Morris, 1986, p.17

About this Work

This view of a picturesque farmhouse was described by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak as showing a building in Devon, though they did not provide any evidence to substantiate their claim. They did say that the first owner of the work, the artist’s son, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74), inscribed ‘painted in 1798’ on the original mount (subsequently lost), and so the identification of Devon as the subject presumably arose from its similarity to another picturesque view, An Overshot Mill (TG1427), which family tradition has always associated with the ‘mill in Devonshire’ shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1798 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.169; Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.677). This could be correct, but there is surely insufficient evidence to support such a specific title for this work, especially as the image itself is devoid of any topographical detail and as it is actually a stronger candidate to be another work Girtin exhibited at the same exhibition in 1798, ‘Cottage, from nature’ (no.575). Of course, it is equally impossible to prove that this humble farmhouse can be identified with that exhibited work, but the crucial point, nonetheless, is that the artist was keen to point out that, as with the mill scene, his picturesque views were not imaginary, however much they resembled the stock rural images that proliferated on the art market at the time. The exhibited image of the cottage was therefore described as ‘from nature’ – not in the modern sense of being painted on the spot, but in the sense of having originally been sketched on the artist’s travels and later reworked in the studio – and it was thus the outcome of his direct engagement with rural life. Establishing the building as an observed fact, rather than a convention, has consequences for how such images might have been read, for, if the location was recorded from life, might not the scene of easeful rural labour, centred on a contented family group, have been thought to be equally true? All of this brings to mind Girtin’s views of the rural properties owned by his future father-in-law, Phineas Borrett (1756–1843) (such as TG1413 and TG1414). Three of these were owned, like this work, by the artist’s son, presumably through inheritance, either from his mother, Mary Ann Girtin (1781–1843), or more probably from Borrett himself, as he died in the same year as Girtin’s widow. Could it be that this view also shows one of the absentee landlord’s properties, and might that explain the prominent role given to the contented occupants of what looks like a less-than-model farmstead?

The work is in generally good condition, with just the white bodycolour, used to create highlights on the figure and the house, showing up too prominently and consequently indicating that a certain amount of fading has taken place. The use of bodycolour to create highlights was particularly associated by Girtin and Loshak with works dating to around 1798, and they ascribed this work, and the similar An Overshot Mill, an important position in their analysis of ‘Girtin’s stylistic development’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.66). Although there are no dated watercolours to back up their assertion, I suspect that it is broadly correct, and there is indeed a substantial group of picturesque subjects from around 1798–99 that are characterised by richly worked colour, often given texture by the use of bodycolour, all of which is designed to match the thick vegetation, which at times threatens to overwhelm the vernacular buildings depicted. I am not sure about the wisdom of the authors’ use of the term ‘hylozoic’ to describe the effect, referring to the philosophical concept that matter is in some sense alive, but there is indeed a ‘pervading atmosphere of lush proliferation’ about works such as this, which, as the same authors perceptively note, tends towards an ‘over-ripe density and excessive picturesqueness’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.66–67).

1798 - 1799

An Overshot Mill


(?) 1799

Pinckney’s Farm, Radwinter


(?) 1799

Turver’s Farm, Wimbish


by Greg Smith

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