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Works Thomas Girtin

An Estuary Scene, Probably in the West Country

(?) 1797

Primary Image: TG1296: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Estuary Scene, Probably in the West Country, (?) 1797, watercolour on laid paper, on an original mount (possibly in its original frame), 22.5 × 42.5 cm, 8 ⅞ × 16 ¾ in. Harewood House (HHTP:2001.2.22).

Photo courtesy of The Earl and Countess of Harewood and Harewood House Trust (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Estuary Scene, Probably in the West Country
(?) 1797
Medium and Support
Watercolour on laid paper, on an original mount (possibly in its original frame)
22.5 × 42.5 cm, 8 ⅞ × 16 ¾ in

‘Girtin’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; Panoramic Format; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
256 as 'Coastal Scene (possibly Devonshire)'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 1999 and 2001


Edward Lascelles (1764–1814); then by descent

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1953a, no.27; Leeds, 1958, no.44; Harewood, 1999, no.6


Borenius, 1936, no.309 as 'Landscape'; Hill, 1995, p.35, p.55; Tuck, 1997, pp.98–99

About this Work

Although it has not been possible to identify the estuary shown in this watercolour, it is likely to represent a West Country scene. The treatment of the foreground bears a striking resemblance to an on-the-spot colour sketch of the estuary of the river Taw in north Devon (TG1281). Equally, the hills in the distance also close enough in their colouring to a south-coast view, The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below (TG1250), to confirm that we are looking at a site that Girtin visited on his trip to the region. As for the date of the work, that at least partly depends on whether it was made on the spot or in the studio. Susan Morris thought that this view, like the larger and less panoramic view of the Taw estuary, dated from a second, conjectural visit to Devon in 1800 or 1801, and this was also the opinion of David Hill (Hill, 1999, p.11; see also Hill, 1995, p.35). Since then, however, new documentation has emerged that shows Girtin was staying near the Taw estuary in late November 1797 (Smith, 2017–18, p.35). Given that it seems highly unlikely that he retraced his steps three years later to execute colour sketches at locations he had already visited, I am convinced that all of the on-the-spot drawings of West Country subjects were made on that trip. That said, the status of this work as an on-the-spot colour sketch is far from clear-cut, not least because its appearance has been compromised by fading, with the sky all but completely lost. Girtin produced a number of other coastal views at this date that, although they display the spontaneous qualities of on-the-spot sketches, are evidently studio productions aimed at collectors who appreciated the informal character of his studies from nature. The attenuated view An Unidentified Estuary, Probably in the West Country (TG1293), which may even show the same location as the work considered here, is a good example of where a drawing is just too carefully planned and executed to have been painted on the spot, whilst this larger work, although something of a marginal call, is more likely to have been a sketch worked in the field. Looking again at The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below (TG1250), which provided the basis for a studio composition (TG1251), one is struck not just by the similarity in the handling of the washes but also by the fact it and An Estuary Scene are on paper of the same size and, somewhat counter-intuitively, it is the larger scale of the studies that marks them out in comparison with the smaller studio works, which replicate the sketches’ informal characteristics. The fact that the status of the work is such a close call is testament to Girtin’s skill in blurring the distinction between the sketch and the studio work, and to his realisation that he might be rewarded by the market for his trouble. One final small detail may help to confirm that the watercolour was sketched on the spot: in the water just below the seated cow, Girtin has left a fingerprint, the result of touching the drying watercolour. 

An Estuary Scene

As part of the conservation process, the watercolour has undergone a careful technical inspection. This showed, as Hill records, that it had been stuck down on a backing sheet with ruled lines, presumably by Girtin himself, and it may have been at this point that the artist added the prominent signature at the bottom left (Hill, 1995, p.35). Possibly uniquely, the work appears to have retained its original neo-classical frame (see figure 1), and, unlike most of the watercolours at Harewood House, it has remained in the collection since it was purchased by Girtin’s great supporter in the second half of his career, Edward Lascelles (1764–1814). It is possible, therefore, that in this particular case a patron was able to prise an on-the-spot sketch away from Girtin and that the artist himself was responsible for converting it from a private study into a framed object for the wall, with all of the bad long-term consequences for its condition.

(?) 1797

The Estuary of the River Taw


(?) 1797

The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below


1798 - 1799

An Unidentified Estuary, Probably in the West Country


(?) 1797

The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below


1797 - 1798

The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below


by Greg Smith

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