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Works Thomas Girtin

A Shipping Study: Five Craft on a Calm Sea

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1815: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Shipping Study: Five Craft on a Calm Sea, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 10.3 × 17.7 cm, 4 × 7 in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.47).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Shipping Study: Five Craft on a Calm Sea
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
10.3 × 17.7 cm, 4 × 7 in
Object Type
Colour Sketch: Studio Work; Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
428i as 'A brig and smaller craft on the calm sea'; '1801'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


Chambers Hall (1786–1855); presented to the Museum, 1855


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.25a as 'Coast Scene'

About this Work

This is one of five studies of shipping all on paper measuring 4 ½ × 7 in (10.3 × 17.7 cm). Together with three larger drawings found in the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1622, TG1623 and TG1625), they form a distinctive group that all appear to have been produced at the same time. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak suggested that this and the other sketches of boats in various configurations were ‘probably made in the neighbourhood of Whitby’, on the North Yorkshire coast, during Girtin’s ‘visit to Mulgrave Castle’, which they dated to 1801 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.192–93). Susan Morris, in contrast, thought that the shipping studies were produced on a hitherto unrecorded trip to ‘the West Country in 1800 or 1801’, citing an inscription on the back of Shipping off the Coast on a Calm Sea (TG1624), which she read as ‘Mount Edgecumbe’, referring to a location near Plymouth in Devon (Morris, 1986, p.21). However, I have found no convincing evidence to support the idea of a second West Country trip, and I am not sure about the reading of the inscription which may not even be by Girtin. In turn, though I do not agree with Girtin and Loshak’s date of 1801 for Girtin’s stay, the suggestion that most if not all of the studies were made on the North Yorkshire coast does seem plausible. In fact, Girtin showed no great interest in naval subjects, certainly in comparison with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), and, apart from during his stay at Mulgrave Castle, which surely took place in 1800, the artist probably only sketched coastal subjects on two occasions, during his trip to the West Country in 1797 and a year earlier on a visit to Northumbria, whilst all of these studies appear to date from a few years later.

Looking at the group of studies as a whole, one is struck by the artist’s indifference to the appearance of the sea, which is generally depicted as a bland, flat surface; indeed, so perfunctory are the washes of blue and grey here that I cannot help wonder about the intervention of another, later hand, perhaps adding colour to make a pencil sketch more attractive to prospective purchasers. Ironically, and no doubt unintentionally, the restricted palette creates a convincing impression of a featureless grey day when all is calm. Against this ground, the ships are frozen in time, so carefully calculated in their placement that they could plausibly have been copied from another source, whilst the one possible explanation for their static position, that they are at anchor, is negated by the fact that three at least are shown in full sail.

(?) 1800

Beached Vessels at Low Tide


(?) 1800

Five Craft off the Coast on a Calm Sea


(?) 1800

The Ruins of Old Mulgrave Castle


(?) 1800

Shipping off the Coast on a Calm Sea


by Greg Smith

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