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Works Thomas Girtin

A Sky Study

(?) 1794

Primary Image: TG0199: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Sky Study, (?) 1794, watercolour on laid paper, 11.4 × 18.4 cm, 4 ½ × 7 ¼ in (sight measurement). Private Collection, Norfolk.

Photo courtesy of Greg Smith

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Sky Study
(?) 1794
Medium and Support
Watercolour on laid paper
11.4 × 18.7 cm, 4 ½ × 7 ⅜ in

‘T Girtin’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Part of
Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
Unidentified Landscape; Weather Effects

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2002


Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) ... Christie’s, 27 March 1936, lot 1 as 'Six other Sepia Drawings of Landscapes and Sky Studies'; bought by Thos. Agnew & Sons, £16 (stock no.1996); bought by Leonard Gordon Duke (1890–1971) (D714), £3 3s; his sale, Sotheby’s, 18 July 1956, lot 49 (2); bought by Walter Augustus Brandt (1902–78), £16; then by descent

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1937, no.118 as ’Study of Clouds’; Ickworth, 1968, no.37/2; Coventry, 1975, no.50; London, 2002, no.28


Lyles, 2000, p.142; Libson & Yarker, 2024, pp.62–63

About this Work

This signed sky study, with just the slightest of references to the land below, is one of a group of seven small monochrome watercolours that were sold together at auction in 1936 (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 27 March 1936, lot 1). Two of the drawings identified as part of the group are dated 1794, A Cloud Study (TG0186) and Jedburgh Abbey, from the Riverbank (TG0188). Given that all of them appear to be on the same laid paper of similar dimensions, it is possible that they came from a sketchbook that was split up. A later inscription on Jedburgh Abbey notes that it was once in the collection of Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) and there is anecdotal evidence that it went to New Zealand in 1841 after his death; it may have been at this stage, therefore, that the watercolours were mounted on uniform sheets of brown paper.

A date of 1794 and a Monro provenance for these sketches suggests two alternative interpretations of their purpose and function. On the one hand, the view of Jedburgh Abbey anticipates by two years Girtin’s visit to the site, and, like the vast bulk of the material produced for Monro, it must therefore have been copied from the work of another artist. It has been suggested that this was also the case with this cloud study, together with its companion piece, A Cloud Study (TG0186) – more specifically, that they were based on the studies of Alexander Cozens (1717–86) or his son John Robert Cozens (1752–97) (Herbert Art Gallery, 1975, p.19). On the other hand, the young artist had only recently left the studio of his master Edward Dayes (1763–1804), and it is possible that Dayes’ exhortation to students to sketch natural effects at all times of the day, and specifically to make studies of light and shade in monochrome, continued to influence Girtin’s practice. The fluid use of washes here indeed suggests that Girtin sketched the work on the spot and that he struggled to match the rapidly changing formation of the clouds. Whether the sketch was simply produced as an exercise in capturing a transient effect or whether Girtin also had in mind the production of a studio watercolour – such as the contemporary view of Ely Cathedral (TG0202) – is not clear, but it is surely significant that he took the trouble to sign and date the work. It may be that even as early as 1794, right at the beginning of his association with Monro, Girtin had discovered that there was a market for his nature studies.

Girtin’s early sky studies have featured extensively in the literature on the development of a naturalistic landscape painting in Britain around the turn of the century, and specifically as a precursor to the meteorologically informed depiction of the sky by John Constable (1776–1837) (Lyles, 2000, pp.142–43). John Thornes, for instance, has described this cloud study as being twenty-five years ahead of Constable (Thornes, 1999, p.179), whilst the catalogue to the exhibition The Cloud Watchers noted that the artist has ‘perceived the nature of the flat bottoms of cumulous clouds quite accurately’ (Herbert Art Gallery, 1975, p.19). It is difficult to see how Girtin could have achieved such effects without studying the passing clouds on the spot, though it is clear he did not share Constable’s commitment to empirical observation. What Girtin did do, however, was to exploit the capacity of the watercolour medium, and specifically monochrome washes, to capture transient effects; however quickly Constable worked in oils, the effect was likely to have passed by the time he had finished his sketch, and he would have inevitably depended on his memory.


A Cloud Study



Jedburgh Abbey, from the Riverbank



A Cloud Study


(?) 1794

Ely Cathedral, from the South East


by Greg Smith

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