For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are the instructions how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.
Works Thomas Girtin

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


Primary Image: TG1074: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear, 1799, graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper, 41.6 × 53.7 cm, 16 ⅜ × 21 ⅛ in. The Whitworth, The University of Manchester (D.1892.110).

Photo courtesy of The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Photo by Michael Pollard (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper
41.6 × 53.7 cm, 16 ⅜ × 21 ⅛ in

‘Girtin. 1799’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (TG1073)
Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (TG1075)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
158iii as 'Durham Cathedral'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and February 2020


James Vine (1772–1837) (lent to London, 1822); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 25 April 1838, lot 593 as '1799 … the much admired and capital drawing', unsold; then by descent to Charles Vine; his posthumous sale, Christie's, 19 April 1873, lot 194; bought by 'Colnaghi', £157 10s; John Edward Taylor (1830–1905) (lent to London, 1875; London, 1877; London, 1891); presented to the Whitworth Institute, 1892

Exhibition History

London, 1822, no.118 as ’Durham; an exceeding fine specimen’ (New Times, 20 February 1822); London, 1875, no.30; London, 1877, no.300 as ’Durham’; London, 1891, no.38; Manchester, 1894, no number; Glasgow, 1901, no.784; London, 1923a, no.12; Brussels, 1929, no.77; Agnew’s, 1931, no.102; London, 1934b, no.758; Bucharest, 1935, no.139; British Council, 1949, no.55; Manchester, 1951, no.17;  Agnew’s, 1953a, no.70; London, 1954, no.110; Norwich, 1955, no.35; Arts Council, 1960, no.34; London, 1967, no.20; London, 1968a, no.528; Tokyo, 1970, no.78; Brussels, 1973, no.49; Manchester, 1973, no.52; Manchester, 1975, no.16; Manchester, 1980, W8; Newcastle, 1982, no.86; Manchester, 1983, no.22; Harewood, 1999, no.5; London, 2002, no.55


Monkhouse, 1894, pl.11; Binyon, 1900, p.18, pl.7; MacColl, 1902, p.62; Davies, 1924, p.21, pl.77; Hardie, 1934, p.16; Kitson, 1937, p.52; Davies, 1939, pp.35–36; Mayne, 1949, p.43, p.101; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.69; Hardie, 1954, no.37; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.6, p.18; Mayoux, 1972, p.123; Brett, 1984, p.107; Mallalieu, 1985, p.61; Manchester, 1988, pp.60–1;  Lister, 1989, no.35; Finch, 1991, pp.36–38; Andrew and Robinson, 1993, pp.16–17; Hill, 1999, pp.7–9; Nugent, 2003, p.132

About this Work

This celebrated watercolour, dating from 1799, is the later of two views of Durham Cathedral and Castle taken from the river Wear (the other being TG1075) that were executed from a pencil sketch (TG1073) made on Girtin’s first independent tour, to the northern counties and Scottish Borders in 1796. Girtin’s 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 the 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. Girtin was by no means the only artist to depict this scene; indeed, his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), clearly following Girtin’s example, adopted the same viewpoint (see TG1075 figure 1). The dramatic picturesque location of castle and cathedral was undoubtedly a strong attraction, but there may have been another factor at work in the proliferation of images of the cathedral in the mid-1790s. The cathedral was then at the centre of a fierce controversy relating to James Wyatt’s (1746–1813) restoration programme, which, if carried out in full, would have seen the demolition of the Galilee Chapel, at the west end of the building (see figure 1 below). The antiquarian and writer on architecture for the Gentleman’s Magazine John Carter (1748–1817) led an impassioned and ultimately successful campaign against Wyatt’s proposals, but ongoing concern over the fate of the great Norman building might have been part of the motivation for the production of Girtin’s Durham views, which feature the Galilee Chapel located above the central buttress of the bridge. The chapel is conspicuous by its absence from the image of the cathedral created in 1795 to illustrate Wyatt’s plans (Cordingley, 1955, p.46).

Design for Durham Cathedral: View from the River Showing the Intended Alterations

The two versions of the composition, though only a couple of years apart in date and despite both being closely based on the 1796 on-the-spot sketch, are marked by a series of differences that constitute a major shift in Girtin’s working practice. And this, in turn, reflects a changing relationship between the artist and the art market that means we are less likely to refer to a long-forgotten antiquarian controversy when examining this later work. The first and most obvious point of difference, though something that is rarely commented upon, is that the later and larger work is altered radically by the omission of the building to the right. The result is startling, not only because the artist has left the change partially visible but also because, in a drawing where the detail of each architectural feature is carefully recorded, the arch is continued at an angle and to a length that is structurally impossible. The idea that such an ‘improvement’ was addressed to an audience that might not be familiar with the details of the site is also underlined by the introduction of figures of varying degrees of improbability. In the background is a group of washerwomen who might have been lifted directly from an Italian print, whilst the foreground is dominated by two men at work repairing a weir, which, in the earlier watercolour, had created singularly unconvincing turbulence in the river. Working on the dry weir, the men provide a rationale for a change to the composition, which is now anchored instead by two areas of flat water with their subtle reflections. Such adjustments to the composition are matched by a significant change in the artist’s palette, which likewise suggests that the artist was no longer working to a commission from an antiquarian patron. This is difficult to judge precisely since the work has faded significantly, with the blues in the sky, for instance, having long disappeared, but Girtin’s adoption of more fugitive pigments was, as the less than sympathetic Dayes noted, proof that he was not prepared to ‘sacrifice brilliancy to permanency’ (Dayes, Works, p.300).1 Working on the open market appears to have encouraged Girtin to employ the sort of multiple glazing of fugitive pigments that creates luminous results likely to attract attention, but at the expense of the watercolour’s future condition. Thin strips at the top and down the left- and right-hand sides, which were once protected by a mount, reveal the original, much brighter colouring prior to fading. Fortunately, the powerful composition (the result of Girtin’s ability to balance a complex range of masses), when added to the masterful way in which the light and shade are articulated across the masonry, remains largely unimpaired, and this ensures the work’s eminent status.

West Front of Wells Cathedral

The first known owner of the work, James Vine (1772–1837), numbered at least three other works by Girtin in his collection, including views of the west fronts of Lichfield Cathedral (TG1003) and Peterborough Cathedral (TG1020). Varying in dates and sizes, they do not appear to have been commissioned from the artist, though they may have been mounted and framed in the same way. The original mount that surrounded this work has been cut down at some point, but there is some evidence that it took the same form as the one that surrounds the Peterborough view. Though the evidence is not conclusive, there is a possibility that this work initially came from the collection of the comic actor Joseph Shepherd Munden (1758–1832), who owned ‘Two companion drawings, on a large scale – Wells Cathedral, by Turner, and Durham Castle by Girtin’ (Munden, 1844, pp.56–57). Turner’s West Front of Wells Cathedral (see figure 2) measures the same as Durham Cathedral and Castle, and it is therefore possible that this was one of the earliest examples of a pairing of the two artists’ works.

On a technical note, the support used by Girtin has been identified by the paper historian Peter Bower as a laid cartridge paper by an unknown English maker, worked on the wireside, where the surface is impressed with the lines of the mould used in its manufacture (Smith, 2002b, p.81; Bower, Report). It came from the same batch used for Paris: The Ruins of the Roman Baths, Hôtel de Cluny (TG1897).

1796 - 1797

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


(?) 1796

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


(?) 1791

Rochester Castle, from the River Medway


(?) 1796

The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral


(?) 1796

The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral


(?) 1802

Paris: The Ruins of the Roman Baths, Hôtel de Cluny


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Dayes’ thoughts on the subject are contained in Instructions for Drawing and Coloring Landscapes which was published posthumously in 1805. It is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1805 – Item 2).

Revisions & Feedback

The website will be updated from time to time and, when changes are made, a PDF of the previous version of each page will be archived here for consultation and citation.

Please help us to improve this catalogue

If you have information, a correction or any other suggestions to improve this catalogue, please contact us.