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Works Thomas Girtin

An Unidentified Ruin next to a Bridge over a Stream, Said to Be Furness Abbey

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1529: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Unidentified Ruin next to a Bridge over a Stream, Said to Be Furness Abbey, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 31.4 × 47.5 cm, 12 ⅜ × 18 ¾ in. Touchstones Rochdale (427).

Photo courtesy of Touchstones Rochdale, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Unidentified Ruin next to a Bridge over a Stream, Said to Be Furness Abbey
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
31.4 × 47.5 cm, 12 ⅜ × 18 ¾ in
Object Type
Unfinished Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; River Scenery; Unidentified Topographical View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
356 as 'Furness Abbey, Lancashire ... Done on the spot, unfinished'; '1800'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Sir James Thomas Knowles (1831–1908); his posthumous sale, Christie's, 28 May 1908, lot 262 as 'Landscape Studies (5)'; bought by 'Palser', £16; J. Palser & Sons (stock no.17533); bought by the Gallery, 15 December 1918


Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.83

About this Work

Even after many years of thinking about this ‘very fine work’, as Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak described the unidentified ruin, it still perplexes me on a number of counts (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.83 and 183). The one thing I am sure about, though, is that it does not represent Furness Abbey in the Lake District, a region that Girtin and Loshak wrongly claimed the artist visited in 1800 and again in 1801 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.40–41). Thus, not only is it now clear that all of Girtin’s Lake District subjects either were made after the work of other artists or have been misidentified, but also the ruins shown alongside a river bear no resemblance to Furness. The fact that the work does not depict Furness does not necessarily invalidate Girtin and Loshak’s claim that it is ‘an outdoor sketch’ done ‘on the spot’, however; indeed, if anything this claim is strengthened by the knowledge that the work was not copied from another artist. Moreover, there are a number of signs in the work that are commonly associated with sketches made from nature, ranging from the limited palette worked over a rapid pencil sketch to the way in which there is a loss of control over the washes in the foreground to the right, as well as the absence of a sky, all of which suggested to the authors of the catalogue of Girtin’s works that this is not ‘an incomplete studio production’. Against this, though, is the fact that the artist clearly left a space for a significant group of cattle and a drover to be added, and, as the example of St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury (TG1756) indicates, this is an unequivocal sign of an unfinished studio work. The degree of forethought and planning involved in leaving an area clear to be subsequently worked up is incompatible with the rapid character of sketching in the field, and, on balance, I am therefore increasingly happy to accept that the work was indeed abandoned unfinished, and that it could have been taken to completion in the studio, with the artist’s attention returning to the foreground, the sky and the figures. It is probably the case, therefore, that the watercolour’s faded condition has made it look more sketch-like, and that the difficulty in establishing the work’s status reflects an increasing convergence, as Girtin’s career progressed, between the on-the-spot sketch and the studio production.

Establishing what the work is not helps us a little with the outstanding questions about it – namely, its date and subject. Extensive research into the latter has sadly still not come up with a satisfactory identification for the ruined riverside medieval fragment shown here, though the ruin does bear some resemblance to the gatehouse of Roche Abbey in Yorkshire. I suspect that it will eventually be possible to identify the location because it would have been very uncharacteristic of Girtin to either invent a scene or significantly alter a location. Indeed, if the watercolour dates from after one of his later tours, it may be that we have not been able to trace the subject because the artist deliberately chose an obscure corner of an otherwise well-known location, and for that reason I have suggested a date of around 1800.

Unidentified Ruins with a Panoramic View

Similar problems are posed by another faded watercolour of unidentified ruins (see figure 1). The subject, combined with the panoramic format and a signature to the left which has been altered to read 'Turner 1796' all suggest an attribution to Girtin, though the work is currently listed as by an unknown follower working in his style. The opportunity to view the work has confirmed the probability that the work is by Girtin in spite of its very poor condition and it will be added to this catalogue as TG1531 when the site is next updated in March 2024. 

(?) 1802

St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury


1799 - 1800


by Greg Smith

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