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Works Thomas Girtin

Exeter, from Trew’s Weir

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1258: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Exeter, from Trew's Weir, 1798–99, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 32 × 44.4 cm, 12 ⅝ × 17 ½ in. Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter (32/1956).

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Exeter, from Trew’s Weir
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
32 × 44.4 cm, 12 ⅝ × 17 ½ in

‘Girtin’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin (the signature has been cut, suggesting that it once extended onto an original mount which has been lost)

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2019


Alfred Geoffrey Turner (1886–1956); his posthumous sale, Hungerford Park, 12–14 June 1956, unknown lot; bought by Spink & Son Ltd, London; bought from them by the Museum, 1956, £750

Exhibition History

London, 1962c, no.377; Exeter, 1995, no.25

About this Work

This view of Exeter from the banks of the river Exe below Trew’s Weir was almost certainly based on an untraced sketch that Girtin made during his stay in the city in November 1797. The artist was commissioned to make a view of the interior of the cathedral by his earliest patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99) (TG1256), and he took the opportunity that this provided to make sketches along the river Exe (such as TG1260). These resulted in three studio watercolours that show different views of the Exe, its attendant shipping and the sixteenth-century canal that was constructed to make the city’s quay accessible to sea-going traffic (the other two being TG1259 and TG1261). The entrance to the canal can be seen in the centre of this view, with the shipping in the quay beyond, whilst the artificial weir, which was constructed by John Trew (active 1563–90) to maintain the water level, is visible in the foreground, though the effect of this has been somewhat diluted by fading. It may now be difficult to fully appreciate the fact, but Girtin’s watercolour records the impact of one of the nation’s most important pre-Industrial Age canals and a project that was crucial for the city’s commercial wellbeing, though the artificial watercourse itself is actually out of view to the left.

From this point on the river Exe, looking north west to the brightly lit cathedral, the city takes up the whole of the middle band of the composition. However, apart from a line of riverfront buildings, the busy centre is blurred by a rain shower that sweeps in from the west. The very fluid grey washes in the sky provide a fine counterbalance to the tumult of the weir, and, together with the expanse of grass in the foreground, they contribute to an image of the city in balance with its natural surrounds. The rapidly worked cloudscape and the city’s silhouetted skyline may give the appearance of being sketched rapidly on the spot, but there is no doubt that the work was painted back in the studio, where Girtin was able to retain the sense of spontaneity associated with the practice. The size of the watercolour and its carefully planned use of multiple layers of wash, each left to dry before being worked over, indicate that the watercolour was executed after the lost sketch, and this is confirmed by the prominent signature in the foreground. Girtin did sign many of his on-the-spot sketches, presumably when he sold them, but in this case the fact that the lower part of his name has been cut points to the fact that the watercolour was once surrounded by a mount, which was created in the studio as an integral part of the composition. The signature must have strayed onto the mount, so that when the latter was later removed, the lower part of the signature went as well.


The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave


(?) 1797

On the River Exe, Exeter


1798 - 1799

Exeter Cathedral, from the South


1799 - 1800

On the River Exe, Exeter


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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