Perhaps because the complex image of the modern city created by Girtin is matched by an innovative approach to the watercolour medium, it is easy to miss the fact that the subject itself was not new. Indeed, Girtin’s image is so close to a watercolour painted by Nicholas Pocock (1740–1821), which may have been known to Girtin as a hand-coloured print, to suggest, initially at least, that it was copied from the earlier artist (see figure 1). In fact, it seems that both simply adopted the same viewpoint, looking east from a conveniently placed bridge, and indeed this may have been what Girtin’s contemporary John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) did as well in order to produce his similar dawn scene, which dates from a few years later (see figure 2). Thus, although the issue has been clouded by the watercolour’s poor condition, certainly in comparison with Cotman’s view, it is clear that it is Girtin’s dramatic use of light, rather than the subject, that ensures its status as a pioneering image of the city as a heterogeneous and disordered mix of the modern and the ancient, industry and nature, the domestic and the public. All of this begs the question of who would have wanted to buy such an uncompromising and unpicturesque image. Sadly, there is no early provenance for the work, but it is clear that it was not a commission, and, given that it conforms to the larger standard size of the watercolours 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 is dated 1800, the first year of their arrangement, there is a good chance that it was produced for Reynolds to sell on the open market. More specifically, Girtin must have chosen the subject from his 1797 sketches believing that a customer could be found who appreciated his skills as a watercolourist enough to spend around £10 on an uncompromising view of modern life.
Michael Liversidge has suggested that the demand for views of St Mary Redcliffe in the years around 1800 was at least partly sparked by the tragic suicide of the young poet Thomas Chatterton (1752–70) and the literary controversy that surrounded his forgeries, published under the name of Thomas Rowley (Liversidge, 2005, pp.56–62). Thus, in addition to the already mentioned watercolours by Girtin and Cotman, the latter produced two more versions of his dramatic view of the church looming over the port (private collections), as did their near contemporary John Varley (1778–1842) (The Huntington Art Museum, San Marino (59.55.1384)). Chatterton’s family had long been associated with the church and the poet was supposed to have been inspired by his discovery of manuscripts in the muniments room at St Mary Redcliffe, where indeed he studied and wrote. I suspect that Chatterton’s mythical status as the tragic misunderstood genius dates from a little later, but there is no doubting Liversidge’s associated contention that the dramatic image of the church and its modern setting reflected the continuing influence of The Mill by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–69) (see TG1451 figure 1), a work that Girtin made his own version of (see print after TG1451). As Liversidge notes, St Mary Redcliffe ‘occupies a prominent place as one of the principal pictorial catalysts that influenced the development of Romantic landscape in Britain’, and it certainly seems to have inspired Girtin’s approach to the ennobling of architectural motifs in views such as this and in the monumental depiction of Bridgnorth at dawn (TG1755) (Liversidge, 2005, p.58).
Bristol Harbour and St Mary Redcliffe
Bristol: St Mary Redcliffe, from the Harbour
Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol
1798 - 1799
Exeter Cathedral, from the South
1795 - 1800
A Windmill by a River