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Works Thomas Girtin

A Farmyard with Barns, Ladder and Figures; A Sky Study


Primary Image: TG1658a: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Farmyard with Barns, Ladder and Figures; A Sky Study, 1800, graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and pen and ink on laid paper, 23 × 28.9 cm, 9 × 11 ¼ in. Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (D.1967.WS.52).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Farmyard with Barns, Ladder and Figures; A Sky Study
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and pen and ink on laid paper
23 × 28.9 cm, 9 × 11 ¼ in

‘Girtin 1800’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Picturesque Vernacular; Rural Labour

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
408 as 'The Barn'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


Sir Edward Marsh (1872–1953); William Wycliffe Spooner (1882–1967); bequeathed to the Gallery, 1967

Exhibition History

London, 1968b, no.51; Bath, 1969, no.35; Rye, 1971, no catalogue; Bristol, 1973, no.30; London, 1974b, no.33; Manchester, 1975, no.78; Wellington, 1976, no.34; London, 1979, no.40; London, 1983a, no.90; New York, 1986, no.95; London, 2002, no.142: London, 2005, no.53

About this Work

This view of a dilapidated cottage, possibly a farm, in a woodland setting, is one of only a handful of later watercolours by Girtin that revisit the sort of overtly picturesque subjects that the artist often explored around 1798 (such as TG1429). Perhaps inspired by the example of John Thomas Smith (1766–1833), whose portraits of run-down vernacular buildings in the vicinity of London were published in 1797 (see TG1431 figure 2), Girtin produced a series of watercolours, only some of which appear to have been based on actual buildings. The rest, as here, were presumably assembled from stock components of the picturesque, all compressed into the ‘very confined, and … narrow space’ recommended by the Landscape Magazine for ‘simple’ rural scenes. As the author Charles Taylor (1756–1823) continued, ‘almost ruined buildings, whose tottering walls, and falling roofs, produce a variegated richness in a Painter’s eye’, even though ‘they may speak poverty to the owner’ (Taylor, 1793, pp.2 and 67). It was possibly with this moral dilemma in mind that Girtin ensured that the figures (who are engaged in labours suited to the woodland setting) are idealised, and the artist made no attempt to disguise the fact that they did not originate in a study of the British peasantry. The female figure, who carries a bundle of sticks on her head, is thus clearly derived from one of the prints after the work of the Italian artist Marco Ricci (1676–1730) that Girtin copied on a number of occasions (see TG1723 figure 2), and she reappears in other watercolours, including The Old Cottage, Widmore (TG1749), where she again carries her burden with the effortless grace of an antique sculpture. The bending male figure, who strips bark from a fallen bough, is taken from another print after Ricci (see source image TG0882), which shows figures investigating ancient ruins, and the motif of the ladder is inspired by an etching from the same source (see source image TG0881).

Both figures are also included in A Sheet of Figure Studies (TG1899), which appears to have been created at a later date, copied from various works to provide models for use in the artist’s watercolours. Given the degree of repetition and borrowing involved, the figures actually contribute to a surprisingly original and cogent thematic, whereby a semi-ruined wood and thatched structure is seen to be reverting back to the materials from which it was made. Thus, it is impossible to make out any clear distinction between the ramshackle structure and the dead tree in the foreground, whilst the figures labour to convert nature’s waste products into something useful to complete the cycle. As Christiana Payne has noted, the image of the woodland cottage was a key picturesque motif in the 1790s, where such figures could stand for the last vestiges of a commons culture where the unenclosed land might still offer a living to an industrious, and free, peasantry (Payne, 2017, pp.54–58).

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white laid paper by an unknown manufacturer, possibly French (Smith, 2002b, p.181; Bower, Report). On the back of the paper there is a slight sky study, and, given that this is on Girtin’s favoured wireside (where the surface is impressed with the lines of the mould used in its manufacture), it was presumably produced first before being abandoned, with the artist turning the paper over to produce this watercolour. Another example of Girtin reusing a sheet of paper in this way is TG1699, where he abandoned a version of The Tithe Barn, Abbotsbury and worked up a distant view of Guisborough Priory instead. The watercolour is generally in good condition, though one of the green tones must have been mixed from fugitive pigments, and some of the vegetation has deteriorated to a brown earth tone as a result.

1798 - 1799

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


1800 - 1801

The Old Cottage, Widmore, near Bromley


1800 - 1801

Ancient Ruins, with a Gothic Church


1800 - 1801

Ancient Ruins, with an Obelisk


1801 - 1802

A Sheet of Figure Studies


1800 - 1801

A Distant View of Guisborough Priory; The Tithe Barn, Abbotsbury


by Greg Smith

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