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Works Thomas Girtin

Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir; An Unidentified Hilly Landscape

1799 - 1800

Primary Image: TG1078: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir; An Unidentified Hilly Landscape, 1799–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 25.8 × 36.6 cm, 10 ⅛ × 14 ⅜ in. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery (1953P220).

Photo courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir; An Unidentified Hilly Landscape
1799 - 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
25.8 × 36.6 cm, 10 ⅛ × 14 ⅜ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; River Scenery

Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir (TG1076)
Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir (TG1077)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
237 as 'Durham Cathedral'; '1797–8'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Christie’s, 13 March 1823, lot 81; bought by James Stuart-Wortley, 1st Baron Wharncliffe (1776–1845), £9 9s; his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 10 June 1847, lot 170; Charles Sackville Bale (1791–1880) (lent to London, 1875); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 13 May 1881, lot 94; bought by 'Norris', £141 15s; J. H. Baring; P & D Colnaghi & Co.; James Leslie Wright (1862–1954); presented to the Museum, 1953

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.72; Bucharest, 1935, no.142; Vienna, 1936, no.164; Paris, 1938, no.204; Birmingham, 1939, no.92; London, 1949, no.185; Arts Council, 1951, no.81; Birmingham, 1953, no.32; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.73; Geneva, 1955, no.65; Amsterdam, 1965, no.52; Arts Council, 1980, no.28; Birmingham, 1980, no.31; Birmingham, 1993, no.106; Harewood, 1999, no.4


Mayne, 1949, p.106; Hill, 1999, pp.7–8

About this Work

This badly faded watercolour is the later of two views of Durham cathedral and castle taken from below the weir looking south east (the other being TG1077), both of which were executed from a monochrome study (TG1076) made on Girtin’s first independent tour, to the northern counties and Scottish Borders in 1796. The work’s very poor condition has led to some confusion about its function, with David Hill, in his book on Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) and the artist’s tour to the north of England in 1797, going as far as to suggest that Girtin’s watercolour was probably ‘a sketch from the 1796 tour, and possibly coloured on the spot’ (Hill, 1999, p.8). This thought may have been suggested by the presence on the reverse of the drawing of an unidentified hilly landscape, worked in watercolour over a pencil outline. The landscape bears some resemblance to the Eildon Hills (see TG1718), and it is therefore possible that the ruins depicted are of Dryburgh Abbey. Girtin visited Dryburgh on his northern tour in 1796 and again in 1800, and it may be that this drawing was indeed sketched on the spot on either of those dates, though I suspect that it is a studio composition that was abandoned incomplete.

Whatever the case, there is no question that the view of Durham is anything other than a faded studio watercolour and that it is the work’s poor condition that has distorted attempts to date it. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, for instance, suggested 1797–98, making it earlier than the larger view from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (TG1077) (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.166). However, the comparison that should be made to establish a more credible date is with the 1799 version of the close-up view Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (TG1074). This too has lost all of the blues in the sky and the river, fading to an almost monochrome shadow of its former appearance. Fading to the degree seen in both watercolours can only partly be attributed to their exposure to high light levels, as it is highly unlikely that either work has been exhibited under significantly different conditions to the very well-preserved earlier version of the composition (TG1077); more significant was the artist’s choice of pigments. No technical analysis has been undertaken of the work, but the fact that a small patch of the sky remains, together with the blue clothes of the figure, suggests that the artist used a second and fugitive vegetable pigment, probably indigo, to work up the rest of the sky and the water. Girtin’s later palette is known to have included other evanescent colours, including two fugitive yellow pigments (gamboge and yellow lake), and their use here might also have contributed to the work’s almost monochrome appearance. The point is that, whilst the faded condition of the 1799 version of Durham Castle and Cathedral hardly seems to affect its impact (so strong is the composition and so well worked is the distribution of light and shade that the monochrome washes arguably enhance its monumentality), here the results are almost entirely deleterious. It is not possible to say how closely the work would have resembled the unfaded version when it first left Girtin’s studio, other than to conclude that the use of glazes of fugitive pigments must have given it a greater subtlety of colouring, and that this was of such an order that the artist believed that it was worth sacrificing the work’s long-term appearance.

1797 - 1798

Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir


(?) 1796

Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir



The Eildon Hills, from the River Tweed at Dryburgh


1797 - 1798

Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir



Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


1797 - 1798

Durham Castle and Cathedral, from below the Weir


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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