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Works (?) Thomas Girtin

An Ancient Castle

1799 - 1800

Primary Image: TG1502: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Ancient Castle, 1799–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 20.4 × 30.3 cm, 8 × 11 ⅞ in. Tate (T08919).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Ancient Castle
1799 - 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
20.4 × 30.3 cm, 8 × 11 ⅞ in

‘Girtin’ on the back, not in Thomas Girtin’s hand

Object Type
Sketching Society Drawing
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Literary Subject

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
341 as 'An Ancient Castle'; '1800'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


'Hogarth'; bought from him by Dr John Percy (1817–89); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 17 April 1890, lot 504; bought by 'Crossman' £1 1s; ... Sotheby’s, 10 June 1925, lot 17; bought by Frederick Meatyard, £2, for Paul Oppé (1878–1957); then by descent; bought by Tate as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1996

Exhibition History

London, 1958a, no.157; London, 2002, no.104


Oppé, 1957–59, p.97, no.1784; Bower, 2002, p.140; Moulden, 2016, pp.61–62; Dowle, 2019, pp.13-14, pp.17-18

About this Work

This monochrome study of a castle sited on the coast in a storm appears to have been made by Girtin at a meeting of the Sketching Society. It comes from a group of seven sketches from the same collection that all show a castle in a landscape, including works attributed with various degrees of certainty to Robert Ker Porter (1777–1842) (see figure 1), Paul Sandby Munn (1773–1845) (see figure 2), John Sell Cotman (1782–1842), George Samuel (active 1785–1823), Thomas Richard Underwood (1772–1836) and Augustus Wall Callcott (1779–1844). Unfortunately, unlike the group of sketches titled The Frozen Watermill (TG1501), the works are not inscribed with the artists’ names, and, if they were all made at the same meeting, this would have been at a slightly later period, when Cotman and Callcott were members, whereas Porter’s view clearly illustrates an unidentified passage chosen on the evening of 28 December 1799. This describes ‘the high embattled walls of the Castle … seen rising from a rock which stood in the midst of the Lake; a heavy draw bridge united it with the shore whose stupendous precipices were lost in awful grandeur’ (Sketching Society, Minute Book).1 The question then is whether Girtin attended the same meeting and chose to ignore the ‘solemn peace’ of the scene, taking his inspiration instead from a different part of the prose passage that describes the castle’s setting amongst ‘stupendous precipices’ and ‘wild & barren’ scenes. The fact that Girtin’s name is actually crossed out in the Society’s Minute Book suggests that his study may indeed date from later and that the seven Sketching Society castle subjects therefore come from two different sessions.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white laid writing paper, manufactured by an unknown English maker (Bower, 2002, p.140; Bower, Report). This is different from the buff-grey laid wrapping paper that was used by both Porter and Munn, and this again points to the existence of two different castle subjects amongst the earliest Sketching Society drawings, since it was the responsibility of the evening’s host not only to choose the passage for illustration but also to provide the materials. It is also important to point out that the attribution of the drawing to Girtin is not without some uncertainty. It has been suggested that the work may in fact be by Cotman, and the simplified application of washes of grey in broad patterns does indeed have much in common with Girtin’s younger contemporary. However, the underlying pencil work appears to be in Girtin’s distinctive hand, and I suspect that the similarities in the handling to Cotman’s work reflect the older artist’s widespread influence at this date.


The Frozen Watermill, from William Cowper’s ‘The Task’


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 Details of the Society’s Laws, the names of attendees, and excerpts from the selected poems are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1799 – Item 5).

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