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Works Thomas Girtin

An Unidentified Scene, Formerly Known as ‘Kirkstall Village’


Primary Image: TG1639: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Unidentified Scene, Formerly Known as ‘Kirkstall Village’, 1801, graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper, 31.3 × 48.9 cm, 12 ⅜ × 19 ¼ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1986.29.529).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Unidentified Scene, Formerly Known as ‘Kirkstall Village’
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper
31.3 × 48.9 cm, 12 ⅜ × 19 ¼ in

‘1801’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; The Village; Unidentified Topographical View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
449 as 'Village of Kirkstall'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Walter Benjamin Tiffin (1795–1877); bought from him by George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911), 16 August 1860, one of four that cost £48 (lent to London, 1875; London, 1877); then by descent to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1986

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.68 as 'Village of Kirkstall, Yorkshire'; London, 1877, no.304; Cambridge, 1920, no.32; Tokyo, 1929, no.74; Sheffield, 1953, no.53; London, 1962a, no.158; New Haven, 1986a, not in the catalogue


Lytton, 1911, no.10; Davies, 1924, pl.53; Mayne, 1949, pl.41

About this Work

This badly faded watercolour has been identified since it was first exhibited in 1875 as showing the village of Kirkstall on the river Aire, a few hundred metres away from the celebrated abbey ruins. However, there is no independent evidence to confirm this, and nor might one expect there to be. The numerous artists who travelled to sketch the picturesque ruins nearby did not generally stop at the village, and there appears to be no other contemporary view of Kirkstall that might corroborate the old title of Girtin’s watercolour. The facades of the vernacular buildings are distinctive enough, together with the unusual combination of a footbridge and a ford for carts, for us to be reasonably sure that the scene is not invented, but as David Hill, the author of Thomas Girtin: Genius in the North (Hill, 1999), has concluded, the work ‘has nothing to do with Kirkstall’. Hill noted in a typically generous and well informed email dated 8 March 2024 ‘that there is no stream or river at Kirkstall so benign as to warrant a ford and a bridge and cottages built right over it’, whilst the ‘elaborate brick chimneys’ depicted by Girtin ‘are not at all characteristic of West Yorkshire, especially Kirkstall which is surrounded by excellent building stone’. The form of the vernacular architecture, he concludes, is more southern in character and I am in agreement with his suggestion that Surrey might be the most appropriate place to look for the location of Girtin’s village view. Girtin’s visit to the district around the home of Dr Thomas Monro at Fetcham resulted in a number of depictions of similar vernacular buildings (see TG1432 and TG1571), though the other area associated with this type of subject, rural Essex, might also be worth considering (see TG1788). Sadly, the closest parallel to this watercolour, a view of a village street painted in Paris in 1802 (TG1918), is also yet to be identified.

The poor, faded condition of the watercolour means that the sky, together with its reflection in the river, has disappeared almost completely, whilst the foliage to the right and the distant fields have changed to a dull tone, barely distinguishable from the earth colours used for the roof tiles. I suspect that this dated drawing from 1801 was once an outstanding work in which Girtin paid uncharacteristic attention to the animals and figures that populate the scene. In particular, he took care with the cart and horses watering in the river, and this detail may even have been based on his drawing Four Studies of a Cart (TG1522), which he appears to have made a few years earlier. Certainly, there is more logic to the action of the horses drinking in the river compared to the very similar group in a field in the watercolour known as The Carter (TG1523), and, in general, the work has a strong claim to being a snapshot of village life even if some of the figures, including the two men to the right of the bridge, are out of scale with the rest.

1799 - 1800

Farm Buildings, Probably in Surrey


1800 - 1801

The Sawmill, Cassiobury Park


(?) 1802

A Church in a Village, Possibly at Radwinter



A Village Scene


1797 - 1798

Four Studies of a Cart


1798 - 1799

An Open Field with a Cart and Horses, Known as ‘The Carter’


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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