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Works Thomas Girtin

A Rainbow over the River Exe


Primary Image: TG1730: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Rainbow over the River Exe, 1800, graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper, 30.4 × 51.8 cm, 12 × 20 ⅜ in. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, Gilbert Davis Collection (59.55.595).

Photo courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, Gilbert Davis Collection (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: Charles Turner (1774–1857), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), mezzotint on steel, 'Rainbow. A Scene on the River Exe, Devonshire' for The Gems of Art, part 1, pl.4, 1 May 1823, 17.6 × 26.5 cm, 6 ⅞ × 10 ⅜ in. Tate (T11680).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), mezzotint, On the Exe, 1822/23, published belatedly in Liber Naturae; or, A Collection of Prints from Drawings of Thomas Girtin, pl.9, 1883, 15.4 × 22.6 cm, 6 ⅛ × 8 ⅞ in. British Museum, London (1893,0612.82.10).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Rainbow over the River Exe
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper
30.4 × 51.8 cm, 12 × 20 ⅜ in

‘Girtin 1800’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Part of
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

A Rainbow over the River Exe (TG1729)
A Rainbow over the River Exe (TG1733)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
345i as 'Rainbow on the Exe'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


James Vine (1772–1837); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 25 April 1838, lot 589 as 'A river-scene, with a rainbow - the capital drawing engraved in the Gems of Art'; bought by 'Maw', £17 6s 6d; John Hornby Maw (1800–85); ... Charles Sackville Bale (1791–1880) (lent to London, 1871; London, 1875); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 13 May 1881, lot 92; bought by 'Palser', £161 14s; J. Palser & Sons; bought by Edward Cohen (1817–86); then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); Walter James Redfern Turner (d.1945); his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 2 June 1948, lot 127; bought by P & D Colnaghi & Co., £1,750; Gilbert Davis (1899–1983); bought from him by the Gallery, 1959

Exhibition History

London, 1871, no.121 as ’Landscape, with Trees and Figures in foreground, and Rainbow’; London, 1875, no.108 as ’The River Exe, near Exmouth (Rainbow effect)’; Birmingham, 1934, no.181; Birmingham, 1938, no.167; Arts Council, 1949, no.35; Arts Council, 1951, no.82; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.63; Montreal, 1953, no.252; Geneva, 1955, no.70; Huntington, 1993, no catalogue


Hamerton, 1887, pp.68–69; Shipp, 1955, p.93; Koschatsky, 1970, p.55; Wark, 1981, pp.20–21; Smiles and Pidgley, 1995, p.63; Smith, 2002b, p.14

About this Work

This is the finest version of one of Girtin’s best-known and rightly revered compositions, though its status has been complicated by the existence of numerous copies (such as TG1729 and TG1733). Sam Smiles has identified the view as showing a scene ‘near Powderham Church looking upriver towards Exton’, though I suspect that it might have been taken from nearer Powderham Castle, a little more downriver, looking across the Exe to Lympstone, with the church to the left and Nuttall Court to the right (Smiles and Pidgley, 1995, p.63). Smiles also thought that the original sketch was produced in 1800 on a second West Country tour, which was posited by Susan Morris (Morris, 1986, p.21), but it is now clear that Girtin, who is documented as having stayed in Exeter in November 1797, would have passed along the west bank of the Exe on the way to Starcross in that year, and so this dated watercolour in all likelihood saw the artist looking back to an earlier drawing for his subject (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804). The studio watercolour was almost certainly supplied to Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer, for sale on the open market, as it conforms to the ‘larger’ standard size of works that Reynolds valued at seven guineas in 1801 but that he was selling for £10 by 1803 (30.4 × 51.8 cm, 12 × 20 ⅜ in) (Reynolds, Letter, 1801).1 The fact that Reynolds produced a mezzotint of the view (see the second print after, above, Neill & Son, 1883) confirms that the work passed through his hands, as does the presence of a date on the drawing, one of more than thirty that Girtin inscribed ‘1800’. The latter point is significant, because until that year the artist had never dated more than one or two of his works annually, and it seems that the change in his practice was governed by the need to prove to the market that his agent was not hawking old, unsold stock.

As with so many of Girtin’s later works produced for Reynolds, the watercolour has faded, as can be judged from the narrow strips around the drawing that were protected by a window mount in the past from the deleterious effects of strong light.2 However, although the clouds have lost some of their substance and the foliage has been flattened out, with some overly prominent pencil work showing up as a result, the view’s impact remains largely unimpaired. There are thus some lovely reflections in the placid waters, with a beautiful contrast between the blue hills and yellow crops, whilst, although the rainbow itself may have lost some of its colours, it still offers a brilliant focal point for the composition. As Robert Wark has rightly noted, Girtin has created a naturalistic image of the effect of a shower at evening time in the summer – quite a feat given that the artist viewed the scene in the late autumn – and then added another element to the mix, balancing the transformative effect of light with a sense of the landscape’s permanency (Wark, 1981, pp.20–21). As with the so-called White House at Chelsea (TG1740), a transient effect adds a profound meaning to a mundane stretch of a river, and what might have been a hackneyed symbol of hope, the rainbow, is given a new potency. Central to this effect is the manner in which one of nature’s grandest, though most ephemeral, sights holds the attention of the family shown under the trees. Predating the example of Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), who uses the anonymous figure seen from behind (the Rückenfigur) as a way of linking natural effects with internal feeling and perceptions, Girtin developed a way of using a simple figure group to expand the meaning of a landscape.

A Rainbow over the River Exe

In addition to the mezzotint by Reynolds, the watercolour was reproduced in the same technique by Charles Turner (1774–1857) (see the first print after, above), and so, as in the case of Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (as The White House should be known), there are two versions of the print. This no doubt explains why there are so many copies of the composition, of varying quality, though probably the best is in the collection of Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (see figure 1). Measuring the same size as the original watercolour, it is likely to have been the work of Reynolds himself, who had both the opportunity and the skill to copy Girtin’s watercolour and produce a convincing work in its own right. Moreover, given that it has survived in better condition than the original, it may even give us an indication of the unfaded appearance of Girtin’s work, though it ultimately lacks the capacity of the original to evoke more transcendental qualities.


A Rainbow over the River Exe


1800 - 1805

A Rainbow over the River Exe



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The details are contained in a letter from Reynolds to Sawrey Gilpin (1733–1807). The letter is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 4).
  2. 2 An early owner of the work, John Hornby Maw (1800–85), was the first to identify Girtin’s problematic use of indigo and the significance of a protected strip around the edge of a watercolour such as this. Maw’s important letter, first published in The Builder in 1857, is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (Maw, 1857; Maw, 1872).

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