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Works Thomas Girtin

Bolton Bridge

(?) 1801


Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Bolton Bridge
(?) 1801
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas
Object Type
Oil painting
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Contemporary Descriptions


Thomas Girtin; his posthumous sale, Christie's, 1 June 1803, lot 133 as 'the only picture the ingenious artist ever painted'; sold to 'Girtin', £25 4s, presumably John Girtin (1773–1821)

Exhibition History

Royal Academy, London, 1801, no.20 as ’Bolton Bridge’ (London Courier, 2 May 1801 (repeated in The Star, 2 May 1801; The Sun, 2 May 1801; The Porcupine, 6 May 1801); Oracle and Daily Advertiser, 7 May 1801; Monthly Mirror, June 1801, p.376)


Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.42–43; pp.119–20

About this Work

contemporary photograph.

Girtin’s only documented oil painting was exhibited at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1801 with the title ‘Bolton Bridge’, though it has not been seen in public since his death (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1801, no.20). Later in the year, the artist stood for election as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy, and, because this was forbidden to ‘Persons who only exhibit Drawings’, it is assumed that his first effort in oils was produced as part of a campaign for membership (Royal Academy General Assembly Minutes, 21 December 1772, quoted in Smith, 2001, p.190). Certainly, Bolton Bridge was not a commission as it appeared in his posthumous sale in 1803 described as ‘the only Picture this ingenious Artist ever painted’ (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 1 June 1803, lot 133). The strategy clearly did not work as Girtin did not receive a single vote in the election in November 1801, and the failure may have hastened the artist’s departure for France, which took place later that month. If the reviews of the work are any guide, then Girtin should not have despaired because one critical notice – repeated in three other newspapers – stated that this ‘landscape is one of the very best works which the present Exhibition contains’, and the same anonymous author specified that its success lay in the way that it ‘is conceived in a style of impressive grandeur, very much in the manner of Wilson, and strongly indicates a genius of the same comprehensive character’ (London Courier, 2 May 1801). 1 The reviews also contained some information on the appearance of the painting, which incorporated a ‘“solemn twilight” [that] is most powerfully imposing’ and where ‘Every thing is absorbed in hue’. ‘The scene is given to us, not such as it is beheld by a common spectator’, added the writer in the Monthly Mirror, ‘but as the eye of a master contemplates it’, and ‘we stand impressed with the stern simplicity of the whole’, though ‘we cannot help regretting the want of some farther particularization of objects in the foreground’ (Monthly Mirror, June 1801).2 The bridge, which still crosses the river Wharfe just over a kilometre south of Bolton Abbey (see figure 1), is a simple two-arched structure and may have been made more attractive to Girtin from the vernacular buildings to one side. If viewed from the south, it might also have included a distant view of Storiths, the eminence seen in the celebrated watercolour (TG1686). However, as is clear from the reviews, the far from exceptional subject was not as important as how it was treated by the artist, and from everything that we know there is no reason to think that Girtin could not have made a highly accomplished painter in oils had he lived longer. It is telling that the same review that likened his work as an oil painter to that of Richard Wilson (1713/14–82) also measured his progress in relation ‘Mr Turner’, referring to his great contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). Even in the field of oil painting, therefore, although both artists were of ‘uncommon and surprising merit … In our opinion … Mr. Girtin seems to tread with a firm step in the path which leads to the higher excellencies of the art. He is not less bold in his portraits of nature, and he is more distinct than his ingenious rival’ (London Courier, 2 May 1801).

How frustrating it is, therefore, that Bolton Bridge has not been seen since it was sold in 1803, apparently to the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), for the substantial sum of £25 4s (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 1 June 1803, lot 133). Nothing more has been heard of the work thereafter, and Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak concluded that it had been lost in the fire that damaged John Girtin’s house and studio in 1817 and that destroyed much of his property (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.119). The same authors mentioned various possible sightings of the painting, and much space is taken up in the Girtin Archive (27) with efforts to refute the claims of people who thought they had found Girtin’s missing oil, although none of which were deemed serious enough to merit the commissioning of a photograph. There is one final detail worth mentioning, however, and that is that Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer, included a painting by Girtin in the list of his stock in October 1801, and he valued this at ‘£25’, which is close enough to the price that Bolton Bridge sold for in 1803 to make one wonder whether he owned it at an early point (Reynolds, Letter, 1801).3 Given that the same list also records ‘plates’ after works by Girtin to the value of £112, I suspect that an engraving of the painting might have been amongst them, though nothing has been traced so far.

It is likely that Girtin sketched the subject on an expedition from Harewood House, where he stayed with his patron Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) in the summer of 1800. A few years earlier, the diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821) described how Lascelles had accompanied John Hoppner (1758–1810) on ‘several excursions to see remarkable places’ in the vicinity, adding that ‘Bolton Bridge is a very picturesque spot’ (Farington, Diary, 14 November 1795). It is possible, therefore, that Girtin painted the oil with the expectation of a sale to his patron, much as Turner had received commissions from Lascelles’ father, the 1st Earl of Harewood (1740–1820), for paintings of other local beauty spots.

1800 - 1801

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


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 This important review is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 1).
  2. 2 This important review is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 2).
  3. 3 The details are contained in a letter from Reynolds to Sawrey Gilpin (1733–1807). The letter is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 4).

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