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Works Thomas Girtin

Five Vessels on a Calm Sea

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1808: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Five Vessels on a Calm Sea, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 10.5 × 17.9 cm, 4 ⅛ × 7 in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.46).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Five Vessels on a Calm Sea
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
10.5 × 17.9 cm, 4 ⅛ × 7 in
Object Type
Colour Sketch: Studio Work; Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
428h as 'Three sailing vessels and two smaller beyond on a calm sea'; '1801'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


Chambers Hall (1786–1855); presented to the Museum, 1855


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.24b as 'Sketch on a Roadstead'

About this Work

This is one of five studies of shipping all on paper measuring 4 ½ × 7 in (10.3 × 17.7 cm). Together with three larger drawings found in the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1622, TG1623 and TG1625), they form a distinctive group that all appear to have been produced at the same time. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak suggested that this and the other sketches of boats in various configurations were ‘probably made in the neighbourhood of Whitby’, on the North Yorkshire coast, during Girtin’s ‘visit to Mulgrave Castle’, which they dated to 1801 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.192–93). Susan Morris, in contrast, thought that the shipping studies were produced on a hitherto unrecorded trip to ‘the West Country in 1800 or 1801’, citing an inscription on the back of Shipping off the Coast on a Calm Sea (TG1624), which she read as ‘Mount Edgecumbe’, referring to a location near Plymouth in Devon (Morris, 1986, p.21). However, I have found no convincing evidence to support the idea of a second West Country trip, and I am not sure about the reading of the inscription which may not even be by Girtin. In turn, though I do not agree with Girtin and Loshak’s date of 1801 for Girtin’s stay, the suggestion that most if not all of the studies were made on the North Yorkshire coast does seem plausible. In fact, Girtin showed no great interest in naval subjects, certainly in comparison with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), and, apart from during his stay at Mulgrave Castle, which surely took place in 1800, the artist probably only sketched coastal subjects on two occasions, during his trip to the West Country in 1797 and a year earlier on a visit to Northumbria, whilst all of these studies appear to date from a few years later.

Looking at the group of studies as a whole, one is struck by the artist’s indifference to the appearance of the sea, which is generally depicted as a bland, flat surface, though in this case the addition of colour is less perfunctory than in others, and I am not so inclined to look for signs of the intervention of another hand in its production. The higher quality of the colouring is not quite enough to counter the feeling that the vessels have been frozen in time in a way that does not suggest that they were studied on the spot. So carefully calculated are the contrasting aspects of the three main ships – a side-on view gives way to a three-quarter view with the third main vessel shown stern on – that it is easy to imagine that they were copied from other sources to create a composition that purports to be a study from life. This might perhaps be the reason for the similarity between the ship seen to the right of Kingswear on the River Dart (TG1267) and the vessel shown in the same position here, albeit reversed. That work is the only example I have come across of any of the shipping studies being used in the production of a studio watercolour.

(?) 1800

Beached Vessels at Low Tide


(?) 1800

Five Craft off the Coast on a Calm Sea


(?) 1800

The Ruins of Old Mulgrave Castle


(?) 1800

Shipping off the Coast on a Calm Sea


1798 - 1799

Kingswear, from Dartmouth


by Greg Smith

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