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Works Thomas Girtin

An Upland Landscape, Identified as Storiths Heights, near Bolton Abbey

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1686: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Upland Landscape, Identified as Storiths Heights, near Bolton Abbey, 1800–01, watercolour on laid paper, 28.3 × 41.8 cm, 11 ⅛ × 16 ½ in. The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge (PD.27-1997).

Photo courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Upland Landscape, Identified as Storiths Heights, near Bolton Abbey
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Watercolour on laid paper
28.3 × 41.8 cm, 11 ⅛ × 16 ½ in

'Plinlimmon - North Wales / T. Girtin' on a label on the back, in a later hand

Object Type
Colour Sketch: Studio Work; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Hills and Mountains; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
487 as 'Storiths Heights, Bolton (Generally known as Plinlimmon)'; '1802'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Girtin (1836–1912) (lent to London, 1877); by a settlement to his sister, Julia Hog Cooper (1839–84); her posthumous sale at Davis, Castleton, Sherborne, 2 December 1884, lot 55 as 'Unfinished sketch, “Plynlimmon”'; Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; accepted by H. M. Governement in lieu of Inheritance Tax, and allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum, 1997

Exhibition History

London, 1877, no.315 as ’Plynlemmon’; Norwich, 1903, no.55; London, 1906, no.98; Grafton Galleries, London, 1911, no.179; Cambridge, 1920, no.44 as ’Plinlimmon’; London, 1934b, no.751; Leeds, 1937, no.21; New Haven, 1950, not in the catalogue; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.32 as ’Plylimmon’; Leeds, 1958, no.58; London, 1959, no.724; London, 1962a, no.163 as ’Storiths Heights, Bolton’; Reading, 1969, no.54; Paris, 1972, no.132; Manchester, 1975, no.102 as ’Storiths Heights, Wharfedale, Yorkshire’; Hamburg, 1976, no.328; Manchester, 1983, no.27; London, 1993, no.153; London, 2002, no.171 as ’Storiths Heights, near Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire’; Cambridge, 2015, p.45


Binyon, 1900, pl.11; Sparrow, 1902, p.91; Finberg and Taylor, 1917–18, p.14; Grundy, 1921b, pp.69–70; Binyon, 1931, p.112; Johnson, 1932, p.146; Binyon, 1933, p.105, p.107; Binyon, 1939, p.7; Binyon, 1944, p.94; Mayne, 1949, pp.65–66, p.104; Hughes and Mayne, 1950, pl.17; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.90–92; Lemaître, 1955, pp.192–93; Girtin, 1962, p.130; Louden, 1969, pp.90–97; Wilton, 1977, p.32, p.188; Morris, 1987a, p.55; Wilton and Lyles, 1993, p.177

About this Work

This engaging watercolour was for a long time thought to represent ‘Plinlimmon’ in Wales, but Girtin did not visit the location, and shortly before the publication of Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak’s catalogue in 1954 it was identified by a local collector as showing the moorland and hills above Storiths, near Bolton Abbey (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.90). This certainly seems plausible given the way in which Girtin explored the landscape, both in the immediate vicinity of the ruins and further afield in Wharfedale, but the topographical elements included in the view are not specific enough to prove the identification beyond reasonable doubt. This is not the only uncertainty surrounding a work that Girtin and Loshak described as ‘amazing’ and as one of the crowning achievements (if not the most important) of the artist’s career. Thus, not only is it unclear whether it is a late studio work or a sketch made on the spot, but there has also been some dispute as to whether it was finished or left incomplete at the artist’s death in November 1802, and was therefore his last work. The notion that this was a very late studio work was elaborated at length by Girtin and Loshak, who suggested that the newly identified view of Storiths Heights represents a balance between Girtin’s skill as a naturalistic artist whose ‘subtleties of atmosphere and aerial perspective’ could capture the effect of a ‘wet moorland mist’, but whose personal expression of his hankering ‘for the loneliness of boundless spaces’ was symptomatic of his realisation ‘that death was not far off’. All of this was wrapped up by the two authors in a complex formalist reading of the ‘endless refinements of composition’ displayed in a composition where the ‘very anonymity of the scene’ allowed the artist to focus on its basic elements and ‘manipulate lines and shapes’, free from any descriptive function, and thus produce a work of ‘abstract character’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.90–92). Their thesis is attractive because it fits neatly with the myth of the romantic artist who dies young. However, as Andrew Wilton has argued, it ignores some details, such as the foreground, which, rather than being a ‘masterstroke of calculated obscurity’, was, he thought, simply left unfinished at Girtin’s death. According to Wilton’s reading, the work would have gained a ‘greater circumstantial concreteness’ if finished, though whether the imagination would have had such free rein to recreate the grandeur of a ‘wild north country scene’ is questionable (Wilton, 1977, p.188).

Wilton’s seems a more credible reading of the effect of the work; however, as I suggested in 2002 in the catalogue to Girtin’s bicentenary exhibition, the state of the foreground arguably resembles that found in on-the-spot sketches such as A View of Hills and a River (TG1336), so it may be that the work is incomplete only in the sense that a sketch includes just what is necessary to realise the artist’s purpose (Smith, 2002b, p.222). The idea that this is an on-the-spot sketch, dating from around 1800, is strengthened by the work’s limited palette, though how that might have been affected by the fact that the watercolour has almost certainly faded is not clear. However, thinking again about the issue twenty years later, it strikes me that whilst I am still confident that this was not Girtin’s last work, interrupted by death, and that any personal meanings it may have had are frankly unknowable and tell us more about our own times and preoccupations, the idea that this is an on-the-spot sketch is just as unprovable. Indeed, that is what I now see as the key to the work’s significance: namely, Girtin’s success in closing the gap between the sketch and the studio work will inevitably throw up examples of works that, perhaps due to changes in their condition, means that their status cannot be definitively resolved, and as cataloguers and viewers we have to accept uncertainty as a defining characteristic of the artist’s contribution to the art of watercolour. But, just for the record, my current thinking on the status and the subject of the work can be summarised as follows. In the first instance, I now think that the sky is just too carefully refined for an on-the-spot sketch and I therefore currently describe the work as a faded studio watercolour, produced in the smaller of the standard sizes that Girtin supplied to Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer. And, on the question of the subject of the work, I am sure it depicts a view in the north of England, and Storiths seems as good a guess as any.

(?) 1798

A View of Hills and a River, Probably in North Wales


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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