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Works Thomas Girtin

Bamburgh Castle

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1104: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Bamburgh Castle, 1798–99, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 54.9 × 44.8 cm, 21 ⅝ × 17 ⅝ in. Tate (N04409).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Bamburgh Castle
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
54.9 × 44.8 cm, 21 ⅝ × 17 ⅝ in

‘Girtin’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Commissioned from Thomas Girtin; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Durham and Northumberland

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
288 as 'Called The Rocking Stone, Cornwall'; 'c. 1798–9'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2011


Edward Lascelles (1764–1814); then by descent to Henry Lascelles, 4th Earl of Harewood; his sale, Christie’s, 1 May 1858, lot 16 as 'The rocking stone'; bought by 'Palser', 25 gns; J. Palser & Sons; Edward Cohen (1817–86) (lent to London, 1875; London, 1877); then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); J. Palser & Sons; bought by Arthur Edward Anderson (c.1871–1938), 31 August 1928; presented to the Gallery, 1928

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.17 as ’The Rocking Stone, Cornwall’; London, 1877, no.309 as ’Rocking Stone, Coast of Cornwall’; Washington, 1962c, no.46; Manchester, 1975, no.48 as ’Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland’; London, 1986, no.10; London, 2002, no.57; London, 2011, no.41; Southampton, 2017, no number


Mayne, 1949, p.98 as 'Tintagel Castle'; Mayne, 1962, p.240; Louden, 1969, pp.101–13; Mayoux, 1972, p.123; Hackney, 1982, pp.30–33; Humphreys, 1989, pp.132–3; Chu, 2003, pp.187–88; Dimbleby, 2005, p.23

About this Work

contemporary photograph.

This fine watercolour, surviving in excellent condition, was known as ‘The Rocking Stone, Cornwall’ for over a century before it was correctly identified as depicting part of the outer wall of Bamburgh Castle, looking north (Hawcroft, 1975, p.42). The confusion over the title is understandable given that the view has virtually no identifying topographical features, and it is therefore an early example of Girtin’s tendency to seek out unfamiliar aspects of popular sites. In this case, he rejected both the well-known vista along the Northumbrian coast (showing the full length of the castle) and the inland view, which he had already depicted by this date in two watercolours (TG0116 and TG1459) that likewise focus on the great Norman tower dominating the centre. Instead, the compressed vertical composition, combined with a low and close viewpoint, invests the central rocky outcrop with a dramatic monumentality that transforms what in fact is a modest incline (see figure 1). This, with the aid of a stormy sky, encourages us to imagine the violent natural forces that have wreaked havoc on the castle’s walls. Girtin’s unconventional choice of view also means that he departed from the tone of the accounts of Bamburgh Castle found in the contemporary tourist literature. As numerous texts stressed, part of the castle had been refitted by the Bishop of Durham as a refuge for shipwrecked mariners, and this pointed to a fine moral. The castle was ‘once the scene of hostilities, and the seat of barbarous chieftains’, noted John Henry Michell, but it was ‘now the receptacle of benevolence, and the asylum of poverty’ (Michell, 1845, p.184). Girtin’s view, in contrast, points to a different reading, which is captured in a few lines that were often appended to literary accounts of such ruins: 

Proud pile! tempest beaten towers, that rear 

Their heads sublime, and to the angry storm 

Bid bold defiance, though their aged brows 

Bear visible the marks of stern decay. (Hucks, 1795, p.47) 

The work is notable for two technical details that help to locate it chronologically and place it precisely within the broader pattern of Girtin’s relationship with the art market. Firstly, the artist employs white bodycolour to delineate a number of features, including the seagulls shown to the left and the central cow, rather than scratching out the forms. This was an occasional feature of Girtin’s larger studio watercolours around 1797–98, and in this case it helps to create a vivid set of contrasts between the broken, stormy sky and a shaft of light that partly illuminates the scene, giving the figure entering through the doorway an almost transcendent quality. Secondly, Girtin changed his mind about the size and proportion of the image, extending it to the left after he had almost finished the work. The extra area is marked by a vertical line because the additional wash overlapped the already dry paint. The reason for this alteration may have been compositional, but more likely it was to do with the requirements of the artist’s patron Edward Lascelles (1764–1814), who appears to have commissioned the watercolour sometime around 1798–99. The addition of the extra strip thus made the work conform to the size of The Ogwen Falls (TG1330), which Lascelles acquired after Girtin’s trip to Wales in 1798, and together the two would have made a fine pair, sharing the same palette but sufficiently contrasting in their subjects to work as twin examples of the artist’s varied command of sublime scenery. An early inventory suggests that the two watercolours may have hung in the same room in Lascelles’ London home, and they would therefore have been designed from the outset to be framed for display (Hill, 1995, p.58). 

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a coarse laid strong wrapping paper, made by an unknown English manufacturer. This was worked on the artist’s favoured wireside, where the surface is impressed with the lines of the mould used in its manufacture (Smith, 2002b, p.157; Bower, Report). The paper came from the same batch used for the watercolour of Kirk Deighton, which is dated 1800 (TG1647). If Girtin had been a more methodical artist, this might have suggested a later date for this work too. However, the use of bodycolour and the deep, resonant palette, which unlike so many of Girtin’s later watercolours does not feature the use of fugitive pigments, suggest that this was one of the earliest of the Lascelles commissions from around 1798–99. 

1792 - 1793

Bamburgh Castle, from the East



Bamburgh Castle, from the Village


1798 - 1799

The Ogwen Falls



Kirk Deighton, near Wetherby


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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