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Works Thomas Girtin

Durham Cathedral, from the South West

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG0919: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Durham Cathedral, from the South West, 1796–97, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 46.7 × 41.3 cm, 18 ⅜ × 16 ¼ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.9).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Durham Cathedral, from the South West
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
46.7 × 41.3 cm, 18 ⅜ × 16 ¼ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View

Durham Cathedral, from the South West (TG1079)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
236i as 'Durham Cathedral'; '1797–8'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833); bought from him by Chambers Hall (1786–1855), 1820, £10 10s (through John Linnell (1792–1882)); presented to the Museum, 1855

Exhibition History

Newcastle, 1982, no.81; Durham, 1993, no.B.6


Miller, 1854, p.xxiii; Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, pp.122–23; Binyon, 1898–1907, no.51; Moulden, 2016, pp.107–8

About this Work

This view of Durham Cathedral from the river Wear, with the castle and Framwellgate Bridge in the distance, is one of two versions of a composition that Girtin appears to have painted soon after returning from his first independent tour, to the northern counties and Scottish Borders in 1796 (the other being TG1079). The sketch on which the two works are based, taken from Prebends Bridge, has not been traced, however. In view of this, the possibility that they were actually copied from a composition by Girtin’s master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), needs to be considered, not least because his drawings formed the basis for the young artist’s two earliest views of Durham (TG0012 and TG0228). Indeed, the former view by Dayes (see TG0012 figure 1) adopts a similar viewpoint, looking from the south west, whilst another of his Durham scenes also seems to have been taken from Prebends Bridge (see TG1079 figure 1). However, in addition to the fact that both works by Dayes appear to date stylistically from after Girtin’s visit to Durham in 1796, there is one detail that clearly indicates that this view of the cathedral was not made from a sketch by his master. Thus, whilst the two early Girtin copies include the scaffolding around the southern of the two west towers that is shown in Dayes’ view from Prebends Bridge, which he noted in a sketch from his 1789 visit, all of Girtin’s later Durham views omit this detail as restoration work had been completed in the interim.

This version of the Durham composition is slightly larger and seems to have been produced at a slightly later date, as it displays a number of signs of greater maturity. The artist has thus dispensed with the fictitious weir that divides the river in the smaller version and has muted the effect of the erroneous reflections of the cathedral’s towers, and the composition is also consolidated into a more upright format. To these signs of a later date must be added the fact that there is clear evidence that the work was commissioned by Girtin’s early patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833). This can be inferred from the diary of the artist John Linnell (1792–1882), which records his efforts in 1820 to act as an intermediary in the sale from Monro’s collection of views of York Minster (TG1047) and Jedburgh Abbey (TG1231) to the collector Chambers Hall (1786–1855) (Linnell, Journal, 1817–23).1 Neither this view of Durham nor the other two subjects, which were also derived from Girtin’s 1796 tour, have hitherto been associated with Monro, and the idea that the patron’s support might have been instrumental in the artist’s itinerary has therefore not been properly considered. The view of York Minster has the same dimensions as this view of Durham, suggesting that they may have been conceived as a pair. Moreover, given that Jedburgh seems to have been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797, it is reasonable to conclude not just that all three works were produced in the immediate aftermath of the tour but also that the inclusion of the three locations was at the behest of the patron.

Durham Cathedral

A full-scale copy of Monro’s version of Durham Cathedral by the amateur artist John Henderson (1764–1843) is further evidence of its provenance (see figure 1). Henderson was Monro’s neighbour and lent the patron works from his own collection, and in return he was able to borrow watercolours by Girtin, from which he made copies, including of this Durham scene and the view of York Minster (see TG1047 figure 3). The copy in this case has the added interest of indicating something of the original appearance of the Girtin watercolour before it lost some of its colour as a result of fading. However, neither the copy nor the Girtin original contains any evidence to back up the claim of the biographer of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Walter Thornbury (1828–76), who claimed that, finding ‘the drawing weak or defective’, Turner had ‘retouched it’ (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, p.123). More to the point, Turner would have seen Girtin’s watercolour at Monro’s house and as was frequently the case on his 1797 northern tour he appears to have been inspired to adopt a similar position when sketching at Durham (Tate, Turner Bequest, XXXV 11).

1796 - 1797

Durham Cathedral, from the South West



Durham Cathedral, from the River Wear



Durham Cathedral, from the River Wear


1796 - 1797

York Minster, from the South West


1796 - 1797

The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The relevant entries from Linnell’s journal are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1820 – Item 1).

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