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Works Thomas Girtin after (?) James Moore

Burnham Abbey

1795 - 1796

Primary Image: TG0300: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802) after (?) James Moore (1762–1799), Burnham Abbey, 1795–96, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 31.9 × 23.9 cm, 12 ½ × 9 ⅜ in. Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (D.1967.WS.49).

Photo courtesy of The Courtauld, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after (?) James Moore (1762-1799)
  • Burnham Abbey
1795 - 1796
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
31.9 × 23.9 cm, 12 ½ × 9 ⅜ in

‘St. Augustine’s Canterbury / Girtin / 1798 June 27th.’ on the back, not in Thomas Girtin’s hand

Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Work after an Amateur Artist
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Buckinghamshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
130 as 'St. Augustine's Abbey - Part of the Ruins'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and March 2023


James Moore (1762–99); his widow, Mary Moore (née Howett) (d.1835); bequeathed to Anne Miller (1802–90); bequeathed to Edward Mansel Miller (1829–1912); bequeathed to Helen Louisa Miller (1842–1915); bought by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960), 1912; sold through the Leicester Galleries, London, November 1912, £50; J. Palser & Sons (stock no.17184); bought by 'Spurries', 20 January 1916; ... J. Palser & Sons (stock no.18415); bought by Victor Rienaecker (1887-1972), 15 December 1921; Fine Art Society, London, 1935; Guy Daniel Harvey-Samuel (1887–1960) (Girtin and Loshak, 1954); Fine Art Society, London, 1960 (stock no.6921); bought from them by William Wycliffe Spooner (1882–1967), £675; bequeathed to the Gallery, 1967

Exhibition History

London, 1912, no.36 as ’St. Augustine’s Gateway, Canterbury (1798)’; Palser Gallery, 1914, no.81; Fine Art Society, 1935, no.25; Fine Art Society, 1960, no.34; London, 1968b, no.52; Bath, 1969, no.36; Bristol, 1973, no.31; Wellington, 1976, no.33; London, 1979, no.38; London, 2005, no.51 as 'Ruins of St Augustine's Priory, Canterbury'


Davies, 1924, pl.10 as 'St Augustine's Priory, Canterbury'

About this Work

It is difficult to believe that this image of a modest, medieval ruin would ever have been associated with the great abbey church at Canterbury were it not for the inscription on the back of the drawing, which reads ‘St. Augustine’s Canterbury 1798 June 27th’. This is clearly wrong on two counts. Firstly, the very specific date suggests quite erroneously that the work was produced on the spot and, indeed, 1798 is too late for a watercolour that stylistically is closely related to the works that Girtin produced for his first significant patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99). The watercolour certainly came from Moore’s collection, and we know that he visited Canterbury because he made a sketch of the gateway at St Augustine’s, from which Girtin made another watercolour (TG0140). But there is no evidence that Girtin worked for him after 1796 and even that date seems too late, stylistically, for a watercolour that, like the vast majority of those Girtin made for his patron, was probably painted after a sketch by Moore himself. And, secondly, the substantial ruins of St Augustine’s Priory and its associated monastic buildings were never so overgrown or so deeply embedded within mature trees as the site depicted here and the work no doubt only retained its clearly erroneous title due to a failure to find a credible alternative location.

The Antiquities of England and Wales

Fortunately, during the final stages of the preparation of this online catalogue, I was directed to the correct title by Jason McKinstry who identified the subject as Burnham Abbey in Buckinghamshire (email dated 28 May 2022). More specifically, he has identified the ruins in Girtin’s drawing as not being those of the abbey church itself but the frater or refectory, and that they are depicted from the cloister looking north. An etching dated 1787 which adopts the same viewpoint, with the ivy-clad chimney and the gable end combining to the same idiosyncratic effect, confirms McKinstry’s identification of the subject (see figure 1). The abbey was founded as a house of Augustinian Canonesses, but after its dissolution in 1539 the church was demolished and the single-story frater was converted into a domestic hall with the large chimney seen here added to the south side. By the end of the eighteenth century this was likewise in a ruined state, though other parts of the monastic buildings were still in use as a farm which is perhaps hinted at by the inclusion of a pair of enigmatic figures. The seated woman alongside her barely discernible daughter bears a strong resemblance to the shepherdess in the foreground of Chalfont House, from the North West (TG1565), whilst the man, presumably a farmer, appears to have been distracted by a cow in the distance.

It is highly unlikely that Girtin visited Burnham himself, basing his watercolour instead on the work of another artist. Certainly, this would help explain the structural ambiguity of the ruins with the chimney seemingly topping a gable at right angles to the west front whereas the print clearly shows it attached to the south facade. Though it is just possible that Girtin based his work on the print, cutting the composition to the left, adjusting the position of the chimney to fit the vertical format and enriching the foliage to create a more picturesque and enclosed view, the more probable explanation for the structural anomalies seen in the drawing is that he worked from a lost sketch by Moore.1 His on-the-spot sketches often display a shaky command of perspective which Girtin, knowing no better, was powerless to correct with the result that the buildings in his versions of Moore’s compositions often display similar problems. In this case it seems that Moore himself was unable to identify the subject of his own sketch – it was presumably he who added the inscription on the back – perhaps mistaking the house of Augustinian Canonesses for St. Augustine’s. Unusually for Girtin, the watercolour technique, particularly in the foliage, is closer to that of Thomas Hearne (1744–1817) than his master Edward Dayes (1763–1844) and it incorporates an uncharacteristic use of pencil shading over the watercolour washes.

There has also been some confusion between this watercolour and the other view of the gateway of St Augustine’s Abbey from the Moore collection (TG0140). Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak listed both works as no.36 in the group of watercolours that the former lent to an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1912 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.146 and 151; Exhibitions: London, 1912). It is, however, almost certainly this work that appeared at the exhibition and, although it does not appear to have been sold from the Moore family collection after 1912, a view of ‘Burnham’ was listed in an early inventory and there is no doubt that the watercolour was one of over a hundred owned or commissioned by Moore from Girtin during the period 1792–96 (Moore, Inventory, 1852).2 

1792 - 1793

The Great Gate, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury


(?) 1800

Chalfont House, from the North West


1792 - 1793

The Great Gate, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 A manuscript note in a copy of Moore’s List of the Principal Castles and Monasteries in Great Britain in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford records that Burnham was depicted by ‘Robertson. Girtin. Grose fm J M’ (Moore, 1798, p.3). The latter presumably means that Grose’s view was made from an image by Moore.
  2. 2 The inventory, dating from 1852, has been transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1852 – Item 1).

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