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Works Thomas Girtin

An Unidentified Estuary, Probably in the West Country

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1293: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Unidentified Estuary, Probably in the West Country, 1798–99, graphite and watercolour on laid paper (part watermark: elephant walking on a hillock), 11.7 × 53.3 cm, 4 ⅝ × 21 in. Tate (T00991).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Unidentified Estuary, Probably in the West Country
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper (part watermark: elephant walking on a hillock)
11.7 × 53.3 cm, 4 ⅝ × 21 in
Object Type
Colour Sketch: Studio Work
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; Panoramic Format; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
257 as 'A Winding Estuary (probably the Exe)'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


J. Palser & Sons; bought by Herbert Powell (1863–1950), 23 January 1918; entrusted to the National Art-Collections Fund (The Art Fund), 1929; presented to the Tate Gallery, 1967

Exhibition History

National Art-Collections Fund Tour, 1947-, no.62; Stoke, 1984, no.4; London, 2002, no.113


Hughes, 1931, no.62; Bower, 2002, p.139

About this Work

Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak thought that this extreme panoramic view of an estuary probably depicted the river Exe, but it has not been possible to identify the scene conclusively (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.169). The disposition of the landscape and its relationship to the water, combined with the panoramic format, point to a view on the south coast of Dorset or Devon, and it may be the same location as depicted in another unidentified estuary scene (TG1296), though from a slightly different angle and considerably expanded to the left. Girtin’s trip along the south coast in the autumn of 1797, possibly from Southampton to as far as Plymouth, gave him numerous opportunities to try out different approaches to the depiction of a type of hilly landscape punctuated by estuaries that he had not experienced before. The sketches and watercolours that were derived from them include some of the artist’s first, and sometimes rather tentative, steps in the use of the panoramic format, though none get close to the exaggerated, one-to-four proportions employed here, in what was surely an experimental work. With a format that is without precedent, either for Girtin or his contemporaries, it is inconceivable that such a view was produced on commission, but equally an on-the-spot sketch is also unlikely. Thus, although some areas are crudely coloured whilst others, such as the trees on the left, have been left unfinished, the watercolour is too carefully planned to have been worked on the spot, and other passage have been built up with multiple layers of different tones, each of which would have been left to dry before the artist continued. In the catalogue to Girtin’s 2002 bicentenary exhibition, I suggested that the ‘status of the work is … unclear’, therefore (Smith, 2002b, p.151). However, since then it has become increasingly clear that from around 1796 Girtin began to produce a new type of commodity in the studio, small in scale and with a sketch-like character that might appeal to collectors who were attracted by the informality and spontaneous character of the on-the-spot studies that he coloured in the field. The extreme panoramic proportions shown here now seem to be less a personal ‘exercise’, as I characterised it in 2002, and more a way of persuading the viewer to believe that the work was the outcome of the artist’s encounter with a scene that could not be fitted into traditional landscape conventions.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a white laid writing paper, and from the fragment of the double elephant watermark he has been able to show that it was manufactured by Adriaan Rogge (1732–1816) at the Walrus Mill in West Zaandam (Bower, 2002, p.139). The paper came from a much larger sheet, probably measuring 40 × 27 in (101.6 × 68.6 cm), and Girtin seems to have used this Dutch-made cartridge for some of his biggest and most dramatic watercolours, including A Mountain View, near Beddgelert (TG1322) and A View on the River Wharfe (TG1674).

(?) 1797

An Estuary Scene, Probably in the West Country


1798 - 1799

A Mountain View, near Beddgelert


1800 - 1801

A View on the River Wharfe


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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