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Works (?) Thomas Girtin

An Unidentified Subject, Probably from James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian

1799 - 1800

Primary Image: TG1503: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Unidentified Subject, Probably from James Macpherson's 'Poems of Ossian', 1799–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 27.2 × 41.2 cm, 10 ¾ × 16 ¼ in. Tate (T08935).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Unidentified Subject, Probably from James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian
1799 - 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
27.2 × 41.2 cm, 10 ¾ × 16 ¼ in

‘T. Girtin’ lower left, by (?) Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Sketching Society Drawing
Subject Terms
Literary Subject

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
339 as 'Subject from Ossian'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Richard Johnson; his sale, J. C. Platt, London, 26 April 1912, lot 880 as 'a pencil and sepia study' (sold with Z1503/1); bought by Paul Oppé (1878–1957), 1912, £2; then by descent; bought by Tate as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1996

Exhibition History

Chelsea, 1947, no.25; Sheffield, 1952, no.33; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.40; London, 1958a, no.158; London, 1959, no.721; Ottawa, 1961, no.48


Oppé, 1957–59, pp.96–97, no.135; Okun, 1967, pp.336–37; Hamburg, 1974, p.27

About this Work

Sunrise on the Sea

This monochrome study was described by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak as a ‘Subject from Ossian’ showing a ‘Highland outpost watching the mists and mountains at dawn’ and they noted that it was ‘Probably a “Sketching Club” subject’ made by Girtin around 1799–1800’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.180). The drawing, though larger than the only Sketching Society subjects that can with some certainty be attributed to Girtin (TG1501 and TG1505), does indeed seem to have been executed at the gathering of amateurs and young professional watercolourists that Girtin is documented as having visited on twelve occasions in the latter part of 1799, including the night of 9 November when, as host, he chose a passage from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller (1764) (Sketching Society, Minute Book).1 However, the signature, which takes the same form as the inscription seen on another dubious monochrome drawing, Sunrise on the Sea (see figure 1), is not in Girtin’s hand, and the attribution to the artist by Girtin and Loshak is speculative at best. The pencil work is particularly tentative and the application of the washes neither creates a credible space nor produces any attractive decorative effects. I suspect that the work was instead created by one of the amateur members of the group, Thomas Richard Underwood (1772–1836), John Charles Denham (1777–1867) or Thomas George Worthington (unknown dates), and its slight appearance is surely inconsistent with an evening’s work by a professional artist.

A Sketching Society Subject

The subject of the work is also not without its difficulties. James Macpherson (1736–96) began publishing his ‘translations’ of the ancient epic poems of the legendary bard Ossian in 1760, and their subsequent success is reflected in the fact that extracts from his works were chosen for illustration at the first three meetings of the Sketching Society, this despite the fact that there was an increasing belief by this date that Macpherson’s tales of the great heroic age of Gaelic culture were little more than elaborate fabrications (Winter, 1973–74, p.132). The selection on 9 September of a passage from Temora (book 4), which describes how a band of warriors ‘came to the hall of the King, where it rose in the midst of rocks’, may have been the inspiration for this scene, but equally it may have been the Ossianic subject chosen by Girtin himself on 27 May (Sketching Society, Minute Book). An unattributed drawing that contains the same elements of rocks, water and soldiers is inscribed ‘at Mr. Girtins May – 27’ (see figure 2). The members of the Sketching Society, not just Girtin, were clearly engrossed by the romantic tales of Ossian and his followers, so much so that Robert Ker Porter (1777–1842), travelling with Underwood in the summer of 1799, described the mountain scenery he encountered in North Wales as requiring the skills of ‘an Osian’ to convey its grandeur (Porter, 1799, f.33). The sublime lakeside ruins of Dolbadarn Castle, ‘perceptable upon the rock it stands upon … presented to my ideas from every circumstance, a most perfect scene, and such as Ossian knew’, he concluded (Porter, 1799, f.73).

The other monochrome subject, Sunrise on the Sea, which came from the same source and bears the same misleading signature as the subject from Ossian, appears to have been painted by a different, though equally inept, anonymous artist. There is no indication of the subject, though because it is on paper of the same size it is conceivable that it too was made at the Sketching Society by one of the amateur members.


The Frozen Watermill, from William Cowper’s ‘The Task’


(?) 1799

The Archangel Gabriel Awaiting Night, from John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 Details of the Society’s Laws, the names of attendees, and excerpts from the selected poems are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1799 – Item 5).

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