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Works Thomas Girtin

Chalfont House, from the North West

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1565: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Chalfont House, from the North West, (?) 1800, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 42.5 × 53.3 cm, 16 ¾ × 21 in. Private Collection, Herefordshire.

Photo courtesy of a Private Collection (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Chalfont House, from the North West
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
42.5 × 53.3 cm, 16 ¾ × 21 in
Object Type
Commissioned from Thomas Girtin; Large Framed Work; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Buckinghamshire View; Country House View; The Landscape Park

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2002


Thomas Hibbert (1744–1819); then by descent

Exhibition History

London, 2002, no.146


Morris, 2002b, pp.62–63; Bucks Gardens Trust, 2016, pp.1–19

About this Work

Around 1800, Girtin was commissioned by Thomas Hibbert (1744–1819) to produce two views of his recently remodelled seat of Chalfont House in Buckinghamshire, seen from across the Broadwater. Here the view is from the north west and in the other (TG1564) the view is from the north east. Hibbert also commissioned another pair showing the newly built lodge on the estate (TG1561 and TG1563). The four watercolours, each measuring about 42 × 55 cm (16 ½ × 21 ½ in), were probably framed for display on the walls of Hibbert’s home, and collectively they represent, after Girtin’s work for Edward Lascelles (1764–1814), the artist’s most ambitious and innovative exercise in the tired genre of the country house portrait. 

Hibbert, a wealthy merchant and landowner, bought the estate in 1791 after returning in 1780 from Jamaica, where he was a prominent slave-owner. The house had been remodelled in 1755 by the amateur architect John Chute (1701–76) for Charles Churchill (c.1720–1812) in the ‘Strawberry Hill’ Gothic style, and Horace Walpole (1717–97) himself advised on its gothicisation. An engraving, which appeared in William Angus’ (1752–1821) Seats of the Nobility and Gentry (see TG1564 figure 1), shows a relatively plain structure that must have seemed old-fashioned by the 1790s (Angus, 1787–97), and around 1799 Hibbert commissioned John Nash (1752–1835) to remodel the house in a more picturesque idiom. The grounds, which earlier had been landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83) and his assistant, were also remodelled at this time by Nash’s partner, Humphry Repton (1752–1818). Given all of this activity, it is not surprising that when the European Magazine used Girtin’s view to illustrate an article on Chalfont in 1812 (see print after TG1564), the text claimed that the building ‘in its improved state’ illustrates the ‘progress of architectural taste’, adding that ‘from the picturesque embellishments with which it is surrounded, the progress of plantation’ is evident as well (European Magazine, vol.61, 1 April 1812, p.185). 

This view of Chalfont House from the north west forms an unusual pairing with the scene from the north east, in that it offers little in the way of contrast, containing the same architectural elements framed and obscured by the same plantings of Repton and Brown. However, the long shadows to the right and the warm glow that dominates this side of the composition indicate that, in contrast to the midday effect shown in the pair, this is an evening view with the newly built castellated extension partially hidden in a suitably gloomy mass of trees to the left. The air of fantasy is enhanced by the silhouetted rider, whose approach to the castle gates could be an illustration from a Gothic romance. It is the foreground figure of the shepherdess, or more likely a servant resting after her labours, that signals the most significant contrast in the paired views, however. On the one hand, she offers an image of the landscape at its most restful, an Arcadian idyll of tranquillity where nature’s gifts are bestowed rather than laboured for. On the other, the figure balances the masculine world of action with repose and tranquillity gendered as female, and it is this that in many ways seems the better suited to the mood of both views. As the anonymous writer from the European Magazine justly claimed, the ‘great characteristic feature of the place … is repose’, adding that ‘the land, the water, the trees, and, indeed, the general system of the view, seem to partake of that placidity which is equally favourable to health and contemplation’ (European Magazine, vol.61, 1 April 1812, p.185). The art of the landscape gardener, aided by Girtin’s brush, has, in other words, tamed the martial associations of the newly built service wing and created a setting for quiet domestic retirement, separate from the world of commerce and trade. 

Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) also painted a number of views of Chalfont for Hibbert, including another from the north west looking over the Broadwater. However, although the views were produced at much the same time, around 1800, architectural details, such as the fenestration and the number of storeys, by no means match precisely. There is clear evidence from his sketchbooks that Turner visited the site in person, but there are no equivalent signs that Girtin did likewise. Though it may be that he visited at a different stage in the building work at Chalfont, I have a suspicion that the differences in the appearance of the buildings in the two artists’ works stem from the fact that Girtin actually worked up his watercolours from a set of architectural drawings in London, though it has not been possible to confirm this.

(?) 1800

Chalfont House, from the North East, with Fishermen Netting the Broadwater


(?) 1800

The North Front of Chalfont Lodge, Seen from the Lake


(?) 1800

The South Front of Chalfont Lodge, Seen from across the Lawn


(?) 1800

Chalfont House, from the North East, with Fishermen Netting the Broadwater


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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