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Works Thomas Girtin

Harlech Castle

(?) 1798

Primary Image: TG1318: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Harlech Castle, (?) 1798, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 37 × 53.8 cm, 14 ½ × 21 ⅛ in. The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge (PD.16-1953).

Photo courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Harlech Castle
(?) 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
37 × 53.8 cm, 14 ½ × 21 ⅛ in

‘Harlech Castle, Girtin’ on the back, by an unknown hand, in pencil

Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; North Wales

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
267 as 'Harlech Castle, Merionethshire'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Herbert Horne (1864–1916); bought from him by Sir Edward Marsh (1872–1953), May 1904 (lent to London, 1916); bequeathed through the National Art-Collections Fund (The Art Fund), 1953

Exhibition History

London, 1916, no.105; Tokyo, 1929, no.77


Hassall, 1959, p.112

About this Work

This large and largely unresolved sketch of a silhouetted Harlech Castle seen from below is so badly faded that Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak described it as an ‘Unfinished’ monochrome wash drawing (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.267). They dated it to 1798, but I am not clear whether they thought that the work was done on the spot during Girtin’s tour of North Wales in that year or whether it was left abandoned later in the studio, though, given the work’s poor condition, a certain amount of ambiguity about its status is understandable. On balance, I think the work is by Girtin and that it was indeed painted on the spot in 1798. The majority of Girtin’s colour sketches from the tour may have been worked on smaller sheets, but a number are on the same larger scale as the artist’s commissioned studio watercolours, and these include an even bigger study, The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau (TG1319), which seems to have been produced on the same leg of the tour, as he travelled south from Snowdonia. Another useful comparison might be made with the large sketch A Distant View of Conwy Castle (TG1307), seen under a lowering sky, which, as here, seems to have been interrupted when the ruins had barely been established by a single wash of colour. The sky in the Harlech sketch has suffered particularly badly, presumably because of the artist’s use of indigo for the darker greys of the clouds, but it probably originally matched the dramatic effect of the rain shower in the Conwy view. Girtin therefore seems to have made a colour sketch, rather than a simple pencil outline, when a subject likely to attract an order was either encountered in a suitable light or accompanied by an appropriate weather effect. The resulting sketches would then both help in the production of a finished watercolour and provide a useful guide to prospective clients, who would get a better idea of what their purchase might look like, though no commission was forthcoming for this dramatic view of Harlech.

Harlech: The Town and Castle from the North, Seen from Below

Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) travelled to North Wales in the same year, and he sketched a similar view of Harlech Castle and town seen from the north (see figure 1). According to Joseph Farington (1747–1821), Turner travelled to ‘South & North Wales this Summer’, and he told the diarist that he was ‘alone and on Horseback – out 7 weeks’. Given that the artist was not reported to be back in London until late September, it is clear that although Turner sketched many of the same subjects as Girtin, they did so independently, with the former’s visit to Harlech taking place a month or so later. The weather, Turner noted, included ‘much rain’, but this was ‘better for effects’, as Girtin’s sketch attests (Farington, Diary, 26 September 1798). A year later, two of Girtin’s colleagues from the Sketching Society, Thomas Richard Underwood (1772–1836) and Robert Ker Porter (1777–1842), undertook a similar tour, which the latter recorded in a highly entertaining journal. In contrast to Turner’s trip, theirs was a rather more sociable affair, recalled in a light-hearted way and where Harlech Castle, on ‘a high rocky promontory’, was described as ‘an Ancient and Splendid Radcliffian erection’ (Porter, 1799, f.39). The reference is to the Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823), whose The Mysteries of Udolpho was chosen by Underwood as the subject for a later meeting of the Sketching Society. Girtin’s sketch of Harlech Castle is far too big to have been the product of one of the group’s meetings, but nonetheless there is still something of a fantastical element to the composition, redolent of a work from the imagination.

(?) 1798

The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau


(?) 1798

A Distant View of Conwy Castle


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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