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Works Thomas Girtin

An Ancient Oak, Said to Be on the River Ure

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1692: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), An Ancient Oak, Said to Be on the River Ure, 1800–01, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 24.4 × 30.5 cm, 9 ⅝ × 12 in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Greg Smith

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Ancient Oak, Said to Be on the River Ure
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
24.4 × 30.5 cm, 9 ⅝ × 12 in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Trees and Woods; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
387 as 'On the River Ure, Yorks ... Probably done on the spot'; '1800'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in May 2023


J. Palser & Sons; bought by S. H. Robinson, c.1930; then by descent; Sotheby’s, 22 November 1961, lot 59 as 'On the Ure, Yorkshire'; Derek Lockett (d.1993); then by descent

Exhibition History

Manchester, 1965, no.25; Manchester, 1975, no.73; Coventry, 1987, no.98


Hawcroft, 1970, p.32; Clarke, Wright and Barnett, 1987, p.40; Tuck, 1997, p.389

About this Work

This badly faded watercolour, showing an oak tree on the banks of a river, has until recently been known only from a black and white photograph, which made it difficult to challenge Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak’s assertion that it was probably ‘done on the spot’ in 1800 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.187). However, Francis Hawcroft knew the watercolour well and stated that it was a studio work (Hawcroft, 1970, p.32), and that would certainly make sense of the date, since as far as I have been able to make out, the artist’s only trip to Wensleydale took place in 1799 when he dated a sketch of the village of Middleham (TG1508). That is, of course, if the watercolour does show a view on the River Ure, since there is nothing in the way of distinctive topographical features to corroborate the title, and no inscription appears to have been recorded either. In addition to confirming the status of the watercolour as a studio work, the procurement of a colour image of the work has revealed an unusual feature in the form of what appears to be a fault in the paper, running diagonally across the centre. This is quite distinct from the drying fold seen in works such as Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet (TG1711) which takes the form of a straight line with a textured strip to either side. The fault in the paper, if that is what it is, appears to offer just enough protection from the effects of light on the fugitive blue pigment commonly used by Girtin at this date to give us some idea of the work in its unfaded state. And this is something that can also be witnessed at the edges of the watercolour where an earlier mount, added no doubt to square off the irregular shape of the paper, has had a comparable effect.

The dominant feature of the work, the ancient oak, certainly does not provide any evidence of the location of the view, for, at a time when many artists produced what amounted to portraits of some of the nation’s most venerable trees, Girtin created a singularly unconvincing arboreal image where both branches and foliage fail to follow the most basic botanical principles. It is not surprising, therefore, that when the watercolour appeared in the exhibition The Blasted Oak in 1987, it was in a section on the tree’s ‘Role in Composition’, with the comment that ‘the solitary oak is a useful solid mass to place in the middle ground of a composition and against which recession may be contrasted’ (Clarke, Wright and Barnett, 1987, p.40). Individual trees do sometime feature in the artist’s earliest drawings (TG0174 and TG0285), but, although the example shown here is at least recognisable as an oak, in general Girtin showed little interest in differentiating between species, and it was indeed their role within the composition that was paramount.


Middleham Village, with the Castle Beyond


1800 - 1801

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet


1794 - 1795

A View in Windsor Great Park with Deer


(?) 1795

An Unidentified Landscape with a Figure Seated on a Gate under a Tree


by Greg Smith

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