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Works Thomas Girtin

Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower

1797 - 1798

Primary Image: TG1101: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower, 1797–98, graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper, 37.9 × 51.1 cm, 14 ⅞ × 20 ⅛ in. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (J15590).

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower
1797 - 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper
37.9 × 51.1 cm, 14 ⅞ × 20 ⅛ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Coasts and Shipping; Durham and Northumberland

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
183 as 'Dunstanborough Castle'; '1796–7'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


J. Palser & Sons (stock no.16097); bought by A. H. Wild, 17 November 1916, £42; his sale, Christie's, 16 June 1922, lot 70; bought by 'Palser', £20; J. Palser & Sons (stock no.18592); bought by Victor Rienaecker (1887–1972), 5 October 1922, £60 (Davies, 1924); Sir Michael Ernest Sadler (1861–1943); Walter C. Hetherington (d.1978); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 14 February 1978, lot 53, £5,500; Phillips, 8 October 1984, lot 56 as 'Dunstanborough Castle: The Lilburn Tower'; bought by the Gallery, £19,000

Exhibition History

London, 2002, no.56


Davies, 1924, pl.25; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.63; Joll, 1988, p.3; Smith, 2002a, pp.218–19

About this Work

Dunstanburgh Castle, from the South

This view of the Lilburn Tower, part of the spectacularly located castle of Dunstanburgh, on the Northumberland coast, like the slightly later vertical version of the composition (TG1102), was presumably based on a drawing made on Girtin’s visit to the north east in 1796. Another on-the-spot sketch shows the castle from the same direction, the north, though from further away and with more of the coastal setting evident (TG1100). For his studio composition, the artist developed a less conventional composition that rejects the more obviously dramatic view of the ruined gatehouse shown by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) in his contemporary watercolour (see figure 1). The key to realising the dramatic potential of the site lay in Girtin’s adoption of a boldly centralised composition, which was derived from his study of John Robert Cozens (1752–97). Having created versions of works such as An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea (TG0662) for Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) in collaboration with Turner, Girtin was equipped to develop a dramatic composition that unites 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 north-eastern views, including Bamburgh Castle (TG1104) and the comparable Lindisfarne Castle (TG1113), the latter of which may even have been conceived as a pair with this work. As with the view of the castle at the nearby Lindisfarne, the prominence of the rock on which the structure stands is greatly exaggerated.

The Wreckers

In contrast with those views, in this one the sea is no longer shown in a calm state, though it is clear that Girtin struggled to depict the more turbulent conditions with any great conviction, certainly in comparison with Turner. The sense that the artist based his depiction of a rough sea breaking on the rocks at Dunstanburgh on conventions developed by other artists, rather than on close personal observation, is perhaps not surprising, as 1796 may have been the first time that he actually encountered coastal scenery on travels that had hitherto been confined to locations chosen for their antiquarian interest. The dependence on existing conventions and models is equally true for the figures, as it is highly unlikely that he witnessed and sketched men salvaging wreckage or cargo from the sea, as shown here. Faced with the reputation of the north-east coast as hazardous for shipping, Girtin seems to have turned to the example of George Morland (1763–1804) for the source of his figures, though it may be that he had something more sinister in mind than the aftermath of a storm, for they bear a striking resemblance to two of the men shown in Morland’s The Wreckers (see figure 2).

The group of views of Northumbrian castles from 1797 and 1798 illustrate for the first time one of the most idiosyncratic features of Girtin’s mature finished watercolours: the fact that he was sometimes happy to incorporate the drying fold found in the handmade cartridge and wrapping papers he used. This manifests itself in this work and in Warkworth Hermitage (TG1096) as a vertical band where the watercolour washes have accumulated in the disturbance in the paper’s surface caused during its manufacture when it was laid on a line to dry out. Such is the vigour of Girtin’s style that this potentially disruptive feature appears quite in keeping.

(?) 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



Warkworth Hermitage


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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