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Works Thomas Girtin

Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)


Primary Image: TG1740: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea), 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 29.8 × 51.4 cm, 11 ¾ × 20 ¼ in. Tate (N04728).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), mezzotint, Chelsea Reach, 24 April 1823, republished in Liber Naturae; or, A Collection of Prints from the Drawings of Thomas Girtin, pl.5, London, 1883, 16.3 × 22.2 cm, 6 ⅜ × 8 ¾ in. British Museum, London (0612.82.6).

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

Print after: Thomas Lupton (1791–1873), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), mezzotint on steel, 'Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea' for The Gems of Art, part 2, pl.7, 1 August 1823, 16.5 × 25 cm, 6 ½ × 9 ⅞ in. Tate (T06431).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
29.8 × 51.4 cm, 11 ¾ × 20 ¼ in

‘Girtin 1800’ lower left in pen and ink, by Thomas Girtin

Part of
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
London and Environs; River Scenery; The River Thames; Wind and Water Mills

Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1525)
Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1601)
Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1741)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
337ii as 'The White House at Chelsea'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2011


Thomas Girtin (1775–1802); his posthumous sale, possibly Christie's, 1 June 1803, lot 39 as ‘Battersea Reach’; bought by ‘Harman’ for £10 10s; ... William Bernard Cooke (1778–1855) (lent to London, 1823); Benjamin Godfrey Windus (1790–1867) (according to the mezzotint by Samuel William Reynolds); David Thomas White, London (as recorded in The Spectator, 5 November 1842); Thos. Agnew & Sons; their sale, Christie's, 4 November 1861, lot 969, 25 gns; Horatio Lucas Micholls (lent to London, 1871, London, 1875; London, 1891); then by descent to Edward Montefiore Micholls (d.1926); his widow, Ada Micholls (d.1933); bequeathed to the Gallery, 1933

Exhibition History

London, 1823, no.16 as ’Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea. An admirable specimen of the Artist’ (Lady’s Magazine, January 1823, pp.51–52; European Magazine, January 1823, p.55, p.59; The Examiner, 5 January 1823, pp.10–11; Morning Chronicle, 27 January 1823; Literary Register, 18 January 1823, p.44); London, 1871, no.115 as ’View on the Thames. Chelsea Reach, with Windmill and White House’; London, 1875, no.102 as ’The White House, Chelsea Reach ... It is said that Turner declared this drawing to be finer than any painted by himself’; London, 1891, no.41 as ’White House, Battersea Reach’; London, 1924b, no.N.10; London, 1934b, no.914 as ’White House, Chelsea’; London, 1973, no.187; Manchester, 1975, no.60 as ’The White House, Chelsea’; London, 1986, no.9; New York, 1987, no.283; Liverpool, 1991, p.29; London, 1993, no.143; London, 2002, no.159 as ’The White House at Chelsea’; London, 2009, no.86; London, 2011, no.42; Shanghai, 2018


Miller, 1854, p.xx; Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, pp.118–19, pp.393–94; Wedmore, 1876, pp.112–13; Binyon, 1900, p.24; Sparrow, 1902, pp.83–84; Stokes, 1922, p.74; Hind, 1923, pp.241–42; Davies, 1924, p.19, p.22, pl.84 as 'Chelsea Reach - "The White House"'; Binyon, 1931, pp.117–18; Binyon, 1933, pp.106–07; Massingham, 1933, p.38; Hardie, 1934, p.7; Hardie, 1938–39, p.89, pp.91–92; Binyon, 1939, pp.7–8; Bury, 1942, p.40; Piper, 1942, p.14; Oppé, 1946b, pp.127–28; Mayne, 1949, p.25, p.53, p.55, pp.64–65, p.98, pl.32b; Williams, 1952, p.107; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.70–73; Smedley, 1955, pp.38–42; Rothenstein, 1962, pp.80–81; Gage, 1965, p.65; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.13, p.20; Louden, 1969, pp.84–86; Mayoux, 1972, p.123; Holcomb, 1974, pp.52–53; Hawcroft, 1975, p.16; Honour, 1979, pp.66-67; Wilton, 1977, pp.187–88; Vaughan, 1978, pp.188-89; Morris, 1987b, p.17; Gage, 1987, pp.124–25; Kitson, 1988, p.4; Humphreys, 1989, pp.60–02 Ford, 1990, p.164; Finch, 1991, pp.39–40; Hemingway, 1992, p.23; Vaughan, 1999, p.194; Beckett, 1999, p.177; Humphreys, 2001, p.99; Hoozee, 2007, pp.192–93; Solkin, 2015, p.266; Ibata, 2018, pp.189–91; Jones, 2018, p.171; Charles, 2020, p.254

About this Work

This magnificent watercolour, so thoroughly deserving of its iconic status as a highlight of the national school of watercolours, is based on a simple pencil drawing inscribed ‘Battersea Reach’ that shows the view upriver from a spot close to the present-day Chelsea Bridge (TG1525). Another sketch in the Whitworth Book of Drawings that has always been associated with this watercolour (TG1601) is executed on paper with an ‘1801’ watermark and must therefore postdate this work, which is dated 1800. The inscriptions on both pencil drawings are inaccurate, however, as the view actually shows Chelsea Reach, and the modern title, The White House at Chelsea (sometimes given as The White House, Chelsea), is therefore wrong on more than one count, since the riverside house temporarily illuminated by the setting sun is actually in Battersea, and the title given on the print published in 1823, Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (see the second print after, above), is the correct one (Smedley, 1955, p.41). The common consensus is that such topographical details, including the fact that the setting sun at this location would not shine on the side of the house facing us, are ‘beside the point’, as I rather foolishly put it in the catalogue of Girtin’s 2002 bicentenary exhibition, as it is surely the timeless evocation of an evening effect that is the real subject of the watercolour (Smith, 2002b, p.209). In fact, I now think it is important to establish the precise location, because not only is the image an important record of London’s rural hinterland prior to it being swept away by encroaching urbanisation but it also actually includes a subtle reference to the impending triumph of modern industry that I missed when cataloguing the work in 2002. Thus, opposite to Battersea Bridge and Chelsea Old Church is Joseph Freeman’s mill, which is pointedly juxtaposed with the innovative horizontal air mill, seen behind to the right, which was built with internal sails and thus might have better dealt with the windless conditions shown here. At least some of the mournful sense of passing that is evoked by the transient effect of dusk can be attributed to our knowledge that this is a landscape on the cusp of being lost to inexorable urbanisation, and that industrial progress will see London’s traditional riverside windmills consigned to the past.1

The White House, Chelsea may be incorrect as a title, but it is not surprising that it has stuck in the popular imagination, as the small area of white, part of the narrowest of panoramic bands into which all of the topographical elements are confined, is the key to understanding both the work’s impact as an image and its status as a paradigm of the watercolour medium. The way in which a nondescript building, and one that was certainly not white, has momentarily been lit up therefore sets in motion a range of powerful resonances. An absolutely still landscape at dusk, devoid of any overt human presence, will in any case evoke a reflective mood, but this is made more poignant by our awareness that the house’s prominence will quickly fade, and its moment of transcendence is just that – a moment. The fact that sky and water dominate the usual signs of human activity in the city only reinforces the theme of transience. But this is more than just a fine example of the artist’s mastery of a natural effect to imbue an ordinary landscape with a rich set of associations, because the work does this in a manner that could only have been achieved in the watercolour medium. The crucial point is that the brilliant white of the house and its reflection are represented by leaving an area of the off-white cartridge paper untouched, with just a touch of yellow to strengthen the contrast. Using the cream colour of the paper to represent an area of white is, I suggest, the technical equivalent of the magical transformation of the house by the chance fall of light, and has come to represent Girtin as the epitome of a laconic, less-is-more aesthetic, where the economy of means is a signifier of genius.

The Thames at Battersea

Such is the status of Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea that it is easy to forget the ordinary circumstances in which it was created. Although Girtin’s earliest biographers created stories suggesting a eureka-type moment for the subject’s inception, it is likely that the watercolour was made as part of a large group that the artist supplied in 1800–1801 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 (Miller, 1854, p.xx).2 The watercolour thus conforms to the larger of the two standard sizes that Girtin painted for sale on the art market, and Reynolds must have had the work in his possession in order to make a mezzotint of the composition (see the first print after, above, Neill & Son, 1883) as well as a full-size copy (TG1741). According to Reynolds, he valued such works at seven guineas each in 1801, though he was able to sell them for around £10 following the artist’s death (Reynolds, Letter, 1801; Reynolds, Letter, 1803).3 The work was not exhibited during Girtin’s life, and it was not actually seen in public until 1823, when it appeared as ‘Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea’ in a show organised by its first known owner, the publisher William Bernard Cooke (1778–1855), who was responsible for a second mezzotint (see the second print after, above) (Exhibitions: London, 1823, no.16). The receptions accorded to both the watercolour and the print were highly positive, and, though the work was only seen in public on another four occasions in the hundred or so years before it entered the collection of the Tate Gallery in 1933, its fame continued to grow. Part of this was no doubt helped by the early biographers of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), who concocted stories of varying credibility expressing the artist’s admiration for his erstwhile contemporary and rival (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, p.393). The two mezzotints produced after the work also helped to keep it in the public consciousness, though they no doubt additionally encouraged the proliferation of copies in both oils (see TG1741 figure 1) and watercolours, one of the least bad of which is attributed to John Varley (1778–1842) (see figure 1).

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white laid drawing cartridge paper by an unknown English manufacturer. The surface of the paper has been flattened during extensive conservation work in the past (Smith, 2002b, p.159; Bower, Report).

1799 - 1800

Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea


(?) 1801

Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea


1800 - 1805

Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 My reading of Girtin’s watercolour by no means exhausts the rich set of associations that such a poetic work evokes for viewers. It is telling, therefore, that the watercolour under its erroneous title has been the subject of poems by two fine poets, Dannie Abse and John Mole. Abse’s Thomas Girtin’s ‘The White House’ was first published in 1998 whilst Mole’s An Amateur Watercolourist to Thomas Girtin describing the effect of his ‘White House’ was published in With a Poet’s Eye: A Tate Gallery Anthology in 1986 (Adams, 1986, pp.51–52).
  2. 2 It is also possible that the work was sold at Girtin’s posthumous sale in 1803 as ‘Battersea Reach’ to ‘Harman’ for ten guineas. ‘Harman’ was one of the main purchasers at the sale, acquiring nine items. Although it has not been possible to identify the purchaser, it may have been the ‘A. Harman’ who, as clerk to Samuel Whitbread (1764–1815), listed Reynolds’ holdings of Girtin’s works (Documents: 1803 – Item 3). It is possible, therefore, that Reynolds got access to the drawing through Harman post 1803 rather than actually owning the work. Thanks to Tim Wilcox for noting the fact that I initially omitted this possible detail of the work's provenance (Wilcox, 2023, p.23).
  3. 3 The letters are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 4 and 1803 – Item 3).

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