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Works Thomas Girtin

Kelso Abbey: The West Front

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1117: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Kelso Abbey: The West Front, 1800–01, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 39.5 × 27.5 cm, 15 ½ × 10 ⅞ in. The Whitworth, The University of Manchester (D.1892.77).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Kelso Abbey: The West Front
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
39.5 × 27.5 cm, 15 ½ × 10 ⅞ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; The Scottish Borders

Kelso Abbey: The West Front (TG1717)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
188i as 'Kelso Abbey'; '1796–7'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and February 2020


Revd C. H. Hartshorne; Christie's, 3 June 1865, lot 45 as 'The Gateway of Kelso Castle'; John Edward Taylor (1830–1905) (lent to London, 1891); presented to the Whitworth Institute, 1892

Exhibition History

London, 1891, no.43 as ’Kelso Abbey’; Manchester, 1894, no number; Worthing, 1956, no.23; Manchester, 1973, no.48; Manchester, 1975, no.19


Davies, 1924, pl.42; Smith, 2002b, p.171; Nugent, 2003, p.132

About this Work

This badly faded watercolour is one of two similarly sized versions of a composition (the other being TG1717) that appear to have been made from a pencil sketch (TG1116) showing the west front of the partially ruined abbey church at Kelso in the Scottish Borders. No image of the drawing is available, and it is not clear whether it was made on Girtin’s trip to the area in 1796 or on a possible visit to nearby Dryburgh in 1800. This is particularly frustrating because the pencil drawing would no doubt help with the dating of a watercolour that Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak suggested was produced in the immediate aftermath of the 1796 tour but that I suspect might be roughly contemporary with the other version of the composition, which is dated 1800 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.160). The frustration has been compounded by the fact that it is also not possible to say which of the watercolours follows the on-the-spot sketch and which changes the building to the right, so that what appears as a humble cottage in this work is rendered as a substantial two-storey house in the other. The former makes more room for the view of the ruined south-west transept, and for that reason it looks as though it may be this undated work that has been altered from the sketch. Whichever is the case, the point is that the artist was prepared to sacrifice strict topographical accuracy in the interests of improving a composition, though, given that none of the other views of the west front of the abbey ruins that I have been able to trace feature such prominent vernacular buildings, it is possible that the structures in the foregrounds of both of Girtin’s watercolours are imaginary or included from elsewhere. Views of other ruins observed on the 1796 tour, including Bamburgh Castle (TG1459) and the similar west front of Jedburgh Abbey (TG1231), also include thatched cottages that appear to have been inserted into the composition as a contrast from the main subject, and this may be the case here.

Girtin’s first views of the abbey church at Kelso (TG0270 and TG0270a) were made after the work of Thomas Hearne (1744–1817), and they predate his first visit to the Scottish Borders by a couple of years. Returning to the subject five or so years later, and no longer working for an antiquarian market that demanded carefully delineated views, Girtin was content to depict the partially ruined structure in all of its spatial ambiguity, with the result that the image requires a certain amount of explanation to comprehend fully. What we are looking at, therefore, is the remains of the western tower flanked by the south- and north-western transepts, the latter of which is the subject of TG0270, whilst in front of that is the incomplete west front, which obscures the very short nave. The confusion occurs because the giant arch in the interior face of the tower has been filled in and thus appears to be part of the west front, whereas it was added to create an enclosed space to accommodate the parish church within the transepts. As a contemporary visitor noted, Kelso Abbey was typical of many ancient structures in the Borders, including Jedburgh and Melrose, as being ‘in part used for public worship, and in part dilapidated’. The attraction for antiquarians, the writer added, was that ‘the undiscriminating hand of modern improvement has not been laid on it’, though the ruins at Kelso were to be tidied, and the arch opened up, as soon as 1805 (Stoddart, 1801, vol.1, p.282).


Kelso Abbey: The West Front


(?) 1796

Kelso Abbey: The West Front



Bamburgh Castle, from the Village


1796 - 1797

The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey


(?) 1795

Kelso Abbey, from the North West


1795 - 1796

Kelso Abbey, from the North West


(?) 1795

Kelso Abbey, from the North West


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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