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Works Thomas Girtin

Bamburgh Castle

1797 - 1798

Primary Image: TG1103: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Bamburgh Castle, 1797–98, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 42.6 × 56.2 cm, 16 ¾ × 22 ⅛ in. Private Collection, London.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hollow

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Bamburgh Castle
1797 - 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
42.6 × 56.2 cm, 16 ¾ × 22 ⅛ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Durham and Northumberland

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in January 2022


Sir John Edward Swinburne (1762–1860) (lent to London, 1823); then by descent to Sir John Swinburne (1831–1914); his posthumous sale, Christie's, 4 June 1915, lot 7, sold with 'Dunstanburgh Castle, TG1102; bought by Palser, £25 4s; J. Palser & Sons; bought by Walter Runciman, 19 September 1916; then by descent

Exhibition History

London, 1823, no.176 as ’Bamborough Castle’ (The Examiner, 10 February 1823, p.101)

About this Work

This fine hitherto unpublished watercolour of Bamburgh Castle, on the Northumberland coast, seen from the north west, was presumably based on a drawing made on Girtin’s visit to the north east in 1796. A later watercolour showing the view from the same direction (TG1104), though from closer to and therefore omitting the great Norman keep, features the same open doorway to the right with a curiously shaped pile of masonry above – the remnants of the castle mill, which had fallen prey to the elements. In contrast to that highly unconventional composition, Girtin has here adopted what was to become a popular viewpoint from a little further back, from where the monumental structure of the keep can be appreciated whilst the scene is still shown from close enough to emphasise the height of the cliff-top setting. As in a number of other views depicting the castles along the Northumberland coast, including the other Bamburgh view (TG1104) and Lindisfarne (TG1113), Girtin has adopted a boldly centralised composition, probably derived from the work of John Robert Cozens (1752–97) (see TG0662), that unites the central tower and the rocky outcrop into a monumental form of great power. In contrast with what is seen in those views, however, the sea here is no longer shown in a calm state, though it is clear that Girtin struggled to depict the more turbulent conditions with any great conviction. The sense that the artist based his depiction of a rough sea breaking on the rocks below the castle on conventions developed by other artists, rather than on close personal observation, is perhaps not surprising, as 1796 may have been the first time that he actually encountered coastal scenery on travels that had hitherto been confined to locations chosen solely for their antiquarian interest. Despite this, Girtin was still able to produce a compelling image of an ancient building rooted organically in its setting and, though battered and shaped by the elements, still standing proud.

The first owner of the work was Sir John Edward Swinburne (1762–1860) of Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, whose collection also included a similarly impressive view of the nearby Dunstanburgh Castle (TG1102). Although there would have been an obvious attraction for Swinburne of the two local scenes, there is no direct evidence that he actually commissioned the watercolours from Girtin, and they were certainly not conceived as a pair. Thus, despite their similar subjects, they are on different scales and adopt contrasting formats, and this view of Bamburgh was probably painted a year or two earlier. Girtin’s rich palette of unfaded colours, the formulaic treatment of the water and the distinctive composition all suggest that it was painted in the immediate aftermath of the 1796 tour. The fact that the two castle views owned by Swinburne were painted at different times does not preclude them having been commissioned, however, and it is unlikely that two such large watercolours would have been produced in the hope of finding a buyer on the open market as they constitute a significant investment of labour on Girtin’s behalf. Watercolours of such impressive dimensions were invariably produced to be framed to form part of a carefully arranged display in a generously scaled domestic interior, and Girtin went to considerable efforts to produce works that might make an impact on the wall. It is perhaps all the more surprising, therefore, that the group of views of Northumbrian castles from 1797 and 1798 illustrate for the first time one of the most idiosyncratic features of Girtin’s mature finished watercolours: the fact that he was sometimes happy to incorporate the visually obtrusive drying fold found in the handmade cartridge and wrapping papers he used. This manifests itself in this work and other northern subject, such as Warkworth Hermitage (TG1096), as a vertical band where the watercolour washes have accumulated in the disturbance in the paper’s surface caused during its manufacture when it was laid on a line to dry out. Such is the vigour of Girtin’s style that this potentially disruptive feature appears quite in keeping and it does not seem to have put off patrons and collectors.

Swinburne is not known to have owned any other works by Girtin and he did not subscribe to the artist’s Paris prints in 1802. However, though there is no documentary evidence from the artist’s lifetime to confirm Swinburne as a patron, rather than a collector, the fact that he lent both the Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh works to an exhibition in 1823 again suggests this as a possibility (Exhibitions: London, 1823). The exhibition of drawings and engravings was organised by William Bernard Cooke (1778–1855) to illustrate the progress of watercolour painting in Britain and here, on the occasion of the first display in public of Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1740), the so-called White House at Chelsea, Girtin’s posthumous reputation began to be forged in earnest. The critic of The Examiner thus noted that ‘A feeling above common nature is produced by the common nature Views of Mr. GIRTIN; they are executed with such a palpable facility of hand and fervour of mind. A little Sienna, neutral tint, and blue, give all that we can expect in … subjects’ such as ‘Banborough Castle, which, from the large Titian-like character of the clouds – the sweeping and rock-dashing movement of the water – rises into grandeur’ (The Examiner, 10 February 1823). The works also caught the attention of the watercolourist John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) when he visited Capheaton in July 1804. Cotman, who knew Girtin well through their work together at the Sketching Society, noted that Swinburne ‘has one glorious drawing of Girtin’s another very bad’, though, frustratingly, he did not specify which of the castle views was which (quoted in Holcomb, 1980, p.26).

1798 - 1799

Bamburgh Castle


1798 - 1799

Bamburgh Castle


1796 - 1797

Lindisfarne Castle


1794 - 1797

An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea


1797 - 1798

Dunstanburgh Castle



Warkworth Hermitage



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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