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Works Thomas Girtin

An Interior View of Fountains Abbey: The East Window from the Presbytery

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1508b: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), An Interior View of Fountains Abbey: The East Window from the Presbytery, 1798–99, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 46.4 × 32.1 cm, 18 ¼ × 12 ⅝ in. Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield (2283).

Photo courtesy of Museums Sheffield

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Interior View of Fountains Abbey: The East Window from the Presbytery
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
46.4 × 32.1 cm, 18 ¼ × 12 ⅝ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
249 as 'Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


J. Palser & Sons (stock no.16139); bought by Thos. Agnew & Sons, 13 June 1906 (stock no.5053), £19; bought by Charles Morland Agnew (1855–1931), 13 July 1906, £80; then by descent to Emily Margaret Agnew (1884–1941); Thos. Agnew & Sons, 1942 (stock no.3257); bought through the Maleham Bequest, 1942

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1911, no.43; Agnew’s, 1919, no.57; Agnew’s, 1931, no.116; Agnew’s, 1942, no.53, £225; Sheffield, 1952a, no.47; Manchester, 1975, no.34; York, 1985, no.32 (catalogue untraced); Norwich, 1987, no.28; Nottingham, 1988, pl.5; Harewood, 1999, no.34; London, 2002, no.42


Finberg, 1919, p.26; Seddon, 1963, p.30, p.32; Hill, 2005, p.31, p.39

About this Work

This powerful view of the ruined east end of Fountains Abbey looks towards the south transept of the Chapel of Nine Altars. The ruins of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century abbey were incorporated into the landscape gardens at Studley in the early eighteenth century, and the park became one of the most popular destinations for tourists to the north. This was encouraged by the growing appreciation of Gothic architecture, though changes in taste also meant that the monument’s artificial setting was increasingly criticised. The Revd Richard Warner (1763–1857), for instance, was distressed to find that ‘instead of the wildness and desolation which Nature invariably throws around her ruins … here all is regularity and correctness’. The result, he concluded, is that there is ‘no one feature to lead to appropriate contemplation, the recollection of extinguished grandeur, or the conviction of the evanescence of all human labour’ (Warner, 1802, vol.1, pp.268–69). Girtin responded to the challenge posed by the site in two ways. Firstly, he adopted a low and close viewpoint so that the great east window and the octagonal pier of the Chapel of Nine Altars, fifteen metres high, appear to tower above us, leaving the arch of the former hanging unsupported, helping to create a sense of grandeur lacking in the site itself.1 Secondly, he used light to charge the monument with greater drama. Shining from the right, it illuminates the pier and the lower part of the eastern wall, and this is matched in a rainbow, which is partially glimpsed through the window. Transient light effects are therefore offered as a contrast to the long-term process by which nature wears away even the greatest monuments erected by humanity, and this theme is picked up by the luxuriant foliage of the elder bush to the right, which threatens to overwhelm the ruins at this point.

The watercolour has variously been dated to 1798 and 1799, and, whilst there is little difference between the two, in practice opting for one over the other is as much about deciding on which of Girtin’s Yorkshire trips he made the original sketch on which the work is based. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak suggested 1798 for the watercolour, presumably on the assumption that it was based on a sketch made at the conjectured time of his first visit to Harewood House (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.33). David Hill, in contrast, suggested that Girtin may have visited Harewood as early as 1797, though he dated the view of Fountains Abbey to 1799, linking the work to the views of Rievaulx Abbey that were exhibited in 1798 (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1798, nos.493 and 653), which he believed were based on studies made on a Yorkshire trip subsequent to the 1796 northern tour (Hill, 1996, pp.21–22). However, in the complete absence of documentary evidence for any of the possible return visits to Yorkshire until we get to 1799, it is simply not possible to say with any degree of certainty when Girtin travelled to Fountains. For the record, however, I suspect that he may have visited in 1796, when he could have sketched at nearby Ripon, and this is supported by the composition of the Fountains view, where the artist has cropped the view of the east window, leaving the arch suspended in mid-air, much as he has done in an interior view of the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory (TG1105). If the work was based on a sketch from 1796, that does not mean, of course, that it cannot have been painted later, and one piece of evidence does point to that possibility. The watercolour of Rievaulx Abbey that Girtin dated 1800 (TG1658) has the same unusual dimensions (roughly 32 × 46 cm, 12 ½ × 18 ⅛ in), albeit in a landscape format, and the two works are close enough stylistically to suggest that they may have been painted as a pair.

(?) 1796

Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church



Rievaulx Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Albeit, as Tom Girtin (1913–94) noted on a photograph taken at Fountains, at the expense of the structural integrity of the building as Girtin has incorrectly shown the exterior south wall of the transept receding at an angle when it should be seen face on when depicted from the artist's viewpoint (Girtin Archive, 35).

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