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Works Thomas Girtin

A Wharf with Shipping, Possibly at Bristol


Primary Image: TG1728: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Wharf with Shipping, Possibly at Bristol, 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 30.5 × 52 cm, 12 × 20 ½ in. Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Celia and David Hilliard (1999.695).

Photo courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Celia and David Hilliard (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Wharf with Shipping, Possibly at Bristol
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
30.5 × 52 cm, 12 × 20 ½ in

‘Girtin 1800’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Docks and Canals; Somerset and Bristol

A Wharf with Shipping, Possibly at Bristol (TG1288)
Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Auction Catalogue


John Wheeldon Barnes; his sale, Christie’s, 7 April 1894, lot 17 as 'View on the Coast, with shipbuilding yard ... 1800'; bought by 'Agnew', £8; Thos. Agnew & Sons (stock no.1038); bought by C. W. Grey, 8 December 1896, £21; then by descent to A. C. Grey; Sotheby’s, 15 March 1990, lot 84 as 'A Boatyard by an Estuary', £9,900; the Leger Galleries, London; Celia and David Hilliard; presented to the Institute, 1999

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1895 as ’The Boat-yard’ (catalogue untraced); Agnew’s, 1896, no.145 as ’Mouth of the Thames’


Museum Website as 'A Boatyard at the Mouth of an Estuary' (Accessed 19/09/2022)

About this Work

This badly faded watercolour of an unidentified coastal boatyard with a vessel being caulked on the beach is based on a drawing that appears to have been made on Girtin’s tour of the West Country in 1797 (TG1288). The sketch has been identified as showing a scene at Bristol, and, though it certainly resembles a number of other harbour and shipping scenes that the artist sketched in the nation’s second largest port (such as TG1286), no conclusive evidence has been found to confirm this (Morris, 1986, p.50). Indeed, the expanse of water shown to the left here is much more substantial than the narrow stretch of the Avon at Bristol, though it is of course possible that the pencil drawing was made there and that the estuary setting, which is absent in the sketch, was improvised in the studio. That is certainly a more credible option than the earlier suggestion that the boatyard was located on the Thames estuary, an area that Girtin is not known to have visited. Indeed, the tour of the West Country was just about the only occasion on which the artist showed any interest in shipping and nautical subjects, and, though other stops on the trip – at Shaldon (TG1263) and Exeter (TG1261) on the south coast, and at Instow in north Devon (TG1736) – might have provided similar opportunities, Bristol still remains the likeliest location for this scene.

The thought that this work showed a Bristol scene was initially strengthened by the fact that it has the same dimensions as Bristol Harbour, with St Mary Redcliffe in the Distance (TG1727) (30.5 × 51.4 cm, 12 × 20 ¼ in), suggesting that they might have been conceived as a pair. However, although Girtin was occasionally commissioned to produce pairs of subjects earlier in his career, both of these watercolours are dated 1800, and, though there are no details about the early provenance of either, they were almost certainly not executed on request for a patron. Indeed, there is good evidence that they were actually made as part of a large batch of watercolours for the artist’s representative, Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), whose role was to sell Girtin’s works on the open market acting somewhere between an agent and a dealer. Both thus conform to the larger standard size that Girtin supplied to Reynolds, and both are dated 1800, the first year of their commercial arrangement. The fact that this watercolour is dated is particularly telling, since prior to 1800 only a handful of Girtin’s works are inscribed with the date of their production, whilst this number rose to over thirty in that year and twenty in the following. It seems that this change in the artist’s practice was governed by the need to prove to the market that his agent was not hawking old, unsold stock. Returning to his sketches from the 1797 trip in 1800, Girtin would therefore have chosen these shipping subjects to elaborate on a substantial scale because he believed that they would sell as examples of his skill, and the precise location of a scene, certainly in this case, was of little significance.

There is one final sad link between this view and the group of works that Girtin produced for his agent, namely its poor faded condition, which suggests that, as in so many of the late works, Girtin employed a palette that included fugitive pigments such as gamboge for yellow and indigo for blue. The strong central band that includes the boatyard has survived with its earth pigments largely unchanged, and this has disguised the fact that the whole of the sky (a mix of grey clouds and blue) and large areas of green vegetation have either been lost completely or reduced to a dull monochrome.

(?) 1797

A Wharf with Shipping, Possibly at Bristol


(?) 1797

Bristol: St Mary Redcliffe, from the Harbour


1797 - 1798

Shaldon, Seen from Teignmouth


1799 - 1800

On the River Exe, Exeter


(?) 1800

On the River Taw, North Devon, Looking from Braunton Marsh towards Instow and Appledore



Bristol Harbour, with St Mary Redcliffe in the Distance


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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