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Works Thomas Girtin

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear

(?) 1796

Primary Image: TG1073: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear, (?) 1796, graphite on wove paper, 21.6 × 32.8 cm, 8 ½ × 12 ⅞ in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Miss Ellen T. Bullard (34.1438).

Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Miss Ellen T. Bullard (34.1438) (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear
(?) 1796
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
21.6 × 32.8 cm, 8 ½ × 12 ⅞ in

‘Girtin del’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin; ‘Durham’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; River Scenery

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (TG1074)
Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (TG1075)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
158i as 'Durham Cathedral'
Description Source(s)
Gallery Website


Francis Bullard (1862–1913); then by descent to Ellen Twistleton Bullard (1865–1959); presented to the Museum, 1934


Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.61; Smith, 2002b, pp.80–81

About this Work

This carefully detailed sketch of Durham Castle seen from the river Wear, with the cathedral beyond, was almost certainly made in 1796 on Girtin’s first independent sketching tour. Only one of the twenty or so pencil drawings and on-the-spot colour sketches that survive from the trip is dated, but it is still broadly possible to trace Girtin’s progress through Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and the Scottish Borders from the titles of the works that he sent to the 1797 Royal Academy exhibition, and from the dated watercolours that were subsequently produced from these and other untraced sketches. In this case, one of the two watercolours executed from this sketch is dated 1799 (TG1074), but the other version, though it is not inscribed, is clearly earlier in style (TG1075). Given that Girtin is not known to have revisited Durham, it is highly likely that this drawing was made on his 1796 trip. The first of the studio watercolours is very close to the sketch, and a striking similarity between the source and the finished work is indeed a feature of the studies he made on the 1796 tour. Only a handful of them were not used as the basis for studio watercolours, and it is clear that Girtin carefully selected views that would make powerful compositions – unlike his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), he did not make numerous drawings as a way of getting to know a subject. For Girtin, the act of sketching was therefore just as much a matter of composing as it was of recording the details of a site.

Durham: The Castle, Cathedral, and Framwellgate Bridge

Girtin’s selection of his viewpoint from low down next to the weir adjacent to Framwellgate Bridge owes much to the example of his master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804). Dayes’ view Rochester Castle, from the River Medway (see TG0057 figure 1) provided the model for Girtin’s early watercolour of that town (TG0057), and this in turn formed the basis for the composition here. From this low and oblique angle, the double arch of the bridge forms a solid base from which the twin symbols of Church and State rise up with a presence that matches the commanding location of the castle and cathedral on a rock above the river Wear. It is intriguing to note that when Turner visited Durham a year later, in 1797, he adopted exactly the same viewpoint to make the pencil drawing (see figure 1) from which he too was to produce a major watercolour (see TG1075 figure 1). As David Hill has argued, Turner seems to have consulted Girtin’s 1796 sketches before embarking on his tour, and he followed Girtin’s viewpoint on a number of other occasions (Hill, 1996, pp.4–5). The slight variation in what can be seen in the two views may be accounted for, as Tim Wilcox has drawn my attention to, by the fact that Girtin customarily sat to make his sketches, whilst Turner stood, though the size and the weight of the sketchbook used by the latter in 1797 means that this may not have been the case here.1

A copy of Girtin’s sketch on the same scale, but with additional washes of monochrome, is in the collection of the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid (see TG1073 figure 2). The drawing, which was bought as by Turner, came from the collection of John Anderson (1854–1941) in New York. Anderson claimed to have owned over fifteen thousand works by Turner and published The Unknown Turner: Revelations Concerning the Life and Art of J. M. W. Turner, with an Account of the Discovery of His Hidden Signatures and Dates (Anderson, 1926) to substantiate his absurd case. The view of Durham is no more by Turner than any of the other thousands of examples, but, as an overlay of images of the two drawings suggests, it may well be a relatively early copy of the Girtin drawing that was probably in America by the end of the nineteenth century.


Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


1796 - 1797

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


(?) 1791

Rochester Castle, from the River Medway


(?) 1796

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 For my change of mind on this point, see the discussion of the two artists' sketching practise on their Northern tours of 1796 and 1797 in Smith, 2023, pp.4–10.

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