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Works Thomas Girtin

Dunstanburgh Castle

1797 - 1798

Primary Image: TG1102: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Dunstanburgh Castle, 1797–98, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 63.8 × 52.1 cm, 25 ⅛ × 20 ½ in. Private Collection, London.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hollow

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Dunstanburgh Castle
1797 - 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
63.8 × 52.1 cm, 25 ⅛ × 20 ½ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Durham and Northumberland

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in January 2022


Sir John Edward Swinburne (1762–1860) (lent to London, 1823); then by descent to Sir John Swinburne (1831–1914); his posthumous sale, Christie's, 4 June 1915, lot 7, sold with 'Bamborough Castle', TG1103; bought by 'Palser', £25 4s; J. Palser & Sons (stock no.17776); bought by 'Spurries', 21 January 1916; Christie's, 29 April 1921, lot 37 as 'Border Castle'; bought by 'Runciman', £58; Walter Runciman; then by descent

Exhibition History

London, 1823, no.149 as ’Dunstanborough Castle’ (Lady’s Magazine, January 1823, p.52)

About this Work

This dramatic view on the Northumberland coast shows the Lilburn Tower, an outlying part of the substantial ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. The same part of the castle is the subject of a smaller watercolour (TG1101) that includes a more striking seascape, though its more conventional format and comparatively bland skyscape lack the drama of this watercolour, which despite its faded condition still impresses. Both watercolours no doubt derived from sketches that Girtin made during his first independent tour, to the north east and the Scottish Borders in 1796, when he studied a more distant view of the castle and the adjacent coastline, again from the north (TG1100). To realise the dramatic potential of the site, Girtin moved his viewpoint to below and close to the cliff and adopted a boldly centralised composition that was derived from his study of the work of John Robert Cozens (1752–97). Having created watercolours such as An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea (TG0662) for Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), Girtin was now equipped to develop a dramatic composition that united the fourteenth-century tower and the rocky outcrop into a monumental form of great power. Girtin employed a similar structure in a number of other views in Northumberland, including Bamburgh Castle (TG1104) and Lindisfarne Castle (TG1113), both of which similarly stress the way that the ancient building springs organically from its setting and, though battered and shaped by the elements, still stands proud.

The first owner of the work was Sir John Edward Swinburne (1762–1860) of Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, whose collection also included an even more impressive view of the nearby Bamburgh Castle (TG1103). Although there would have been an obvious attraction for Swinburne of the two local scenes, there is no direct evidence that he actually commissioned the watercolours from Girtin, and they were certainly not conceived as a pair. Thus, despite their similar subjects, they are on different scales and adopt contrasting formats, and the view of Bamburgh was painted, it seems, a year or two later than this neighbouring view of Dunstanburgh. The fine condition of the Bamburgh view, typical of the watercolours that emerged in the aftermath of the 1796 tour, contrasts with the faded effect seen here – the result, I suspect, in changes to Girtin’s palette around 1798–99 that saw the use of more light-sensitive pigments, such as indigo for the blues. The fact that the works were painted at different times does not preclude them having been commissioned, however, and it is unlikely that two such large watercolours would have been produced in the hope of finding a buyer on the open market as they constitute a significant investment of labour on Girtin’s behalf. Watercolours of such impressive dimensions were invariably produced to be framed to form part of a carefully arranged display in a generously scaled domestic interior, and Girtin went to considerable lengths to produce works that might make an impact on the wall.

Swinburne is not known to have owned any other works by Girtin and he did not subscribe to the artist’s Paris prints in 1802. However, though there is no documentary evidence from the artist’s lifetime to confirm Swinburne as a patron, rather than a collector, the fact that he lent both the Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh works to an exhibition in 1823 again suggests this as a possibility (Exhibitions: London, 1823). The exhibition of drawings and engravings was organised by William Bernard Cooke (1778–1855) to illustrate the progress of watercolour painting in Britain and here, on the occasion of the first display in public of Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1740), the so-called White House at Chelsea, Girtin’s posthumous reputation began to be forged in earnest. The critic of the Lady’s Magazine thus noted that ‘his style, like that of Wilson, is grand, broad, and true’, adding that ‘he had the rare faculty of seizing upon the essence of what constitutes grandeur and beauty in nature, without the labour of minute detail’. Dunstanburgh Castle, ‘in the possession of Sir J. Swinburne, bart.’ is ‘one of his finest drawings’, the anonymous writer continued, ‘and may be classed with the epic of landscape; the scene is grand, the chiaro oscuro wild, solemn, and effective; the colour deep, and the execution broad and firm: and there are other drawings from the hand of this lamented genius, all bearing the stamp of that divine source from which he drew nature’ (Lady’s Magazine, January 1823).

1797 - 1798

Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower


(?) 1796

Dunstanburgh Castle, Viewed from a Distance


1794 - 1797

An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea


1798 - 1799

Bamburgh Castle


1796 - 1797

Lindisfarne Castle


1797 - 1798

Bamburgh Castle



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


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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