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Works Thomas Girtin

Caernarfon Castle, from the River Seiont

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1315: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Caernarfon Castle, from the River Seiont, 1798–99, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 18.4 × 29.6 cm, 7 ¼ × 11 ⅝ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.57).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Print after: Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), etching and aquatint, Caernarfon Castle, 1822/23, published belatedly in Liber Naturae; or, A Collection of Prints from the Drawings of Thomas Girtin, pl.15, London, 1883, 16.1 × 23 cm, 6 ⁵⁄₁₆ × 9 in. British Museum, London (1893,0612.82.16).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Description
Creator(s)
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
Title
  • Caernarfon Castle, from the River Seiont
Date
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
Dimensions
18.4 × 29.6 cm, 7 ¼ × 11 ⅝ in
Part of
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; North Wales; River Scenery

Collection
Versions
Caernarfon Castle, from the River Seiont (TG1316)
Catalogue Number
TG1315
Girtin & Loshak Number
290i as 'Caernarvon Castle'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018

Provenance

Chambers Hall (1786–1855); presented to the Museum, 1855

Bibliography

Binyon, 1898–1907, no.5

About this Work

This small watercolour is one of two versions of a composition that Girtin presumably sketched on his tour of North Wales in the summer of 1798 (the other being TG1316). The view from the river Seiont shows the south flank of Caernarfon Castle, with the Queen’s Tower to the right, and it therefore covers much the same extent of the building that is seen in the pencil drawing made at the same time (TG1308), though more of the estuary is visible as the view was taken from further away. The condition of the work has been adversely affected by fading, and the use of a low-grade wrapping paper has resulted in a large number of discoloured spots caused by impurities in the support, but this in itself is not enough to account for the disappointing impact it makes. This, I suspect, is very much down to the careless way in which the complex structure of the castle has been reduced to a far from imposing band of masonry in the centre of the composition, with little sense of recession and no indication of a coherent relationship with the rest of the building, though the poor quality of the drawing is not enough to show, as with the other version of the composition, that it was a copy by another hand. Rather, the watercolour’s modest scale, together with its perfunctory execution, suggests that we are looking at what contemporaries referred to as a ‘pot boiler’ – a work made for the fee and not to enhance professional reputation – and specifically that it was executed for the print trade. The fact that the print (combining etching and aquatint) of the subject was published only in 1883 (see the print after, above, Neill & Son, 1883) is quite misleading, therefore, since we know that Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who worked as Girtin’s representative, acting somewhere between an agent and a dealer from around 1800, was also making prints after his works around this earlier date. Thus, the same document that established Reynolds’ close commercial relationship with Girtin has also revealed that he had ‘Plates from drawings by Girtin’ worth £60 in 1801, and it seems likely that he procured drawings such as this from the artist for the purpose of reproduction (Reynolds, Letter, 1801).1

Caernarfon Castle, from the East

Another watercolour of almost exactly the same view was painted by Girtin’s older contemporary William Sawrey Gilpin (1762–1843) (The Whitworth, Manchester (D.1893.13)), but an even more striking parallel exists with an on-the-spot colour sketch that appears to have been produced by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) on his visit to Caernarfon, also in the summer of 1798 (see figure 1). Indeed, for a long time the fact that the work was executed on a type of laid paper rarely used by Turner, combined with the employment of a palette that bore a resemblance to Girtin’s on-the-spot sketches, suggested to me not only that Turner had acquired one of his colleague’s drawings but also that it was the basis for this watercolour of Caernarfon. However, although Turner did indeed buy a number of Girtin’s sketches at the posthumous sale of their mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), including a very similar view of Caernarfon Castle (TG1308), I now think that the material evidence for a Girtin attribution is outweighed by the differences between the colour sketch and the watercolour, which, on closer examination, can be seen to repeat the disposition of the boats in the other Girtin drawing of this view. The colour sketch, in contrast, was not only taken from closer to, producing an altogether more satisfactory compact profile for the castle, but also executed on a slightly later date, when only the boat under construction on the stocks remains in the same location depicted by Girtin. As the example of Gilpin’s view shows, there are only a few points from which the castle might be seen to best effect, and the fact that artists produced very similar scenes may simply be a matter of coincidence, therefore.

1798 - 1799

Caernarfon Castle, from the River Seiont

TG1316

(?) 1798

Caernarfon Castle, from the East

TG1308

(?) 1798

Caernarfon Castle, from the East

TG1308

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

Footnotes

  1. 1 The details are contained in a letter to Sawrey Gilpin (1733–1807). It is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 4).

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