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Works Thomas Girtin

Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1636: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning, 1800–01, watercolour on laid paper, 31.7 × 52 cm, 12 ½ × 20 ½ in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (405-1885).

Photo courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), mezzotint, Kirkstall Abbey, 24 April 1823, republished in Liber Naturae; or, A Collection of Prints from the Drawings of Thomas Girtin, pl.7, London, 1883, 16 × 22.9 cm, 6 ¼ × 9 in. British Museum, London (1893,0612.82.8).

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

Print after: William Say (1768–1834), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), mezzotint (engraver's proof), Kirkstall Abbey for The Rivers of England, pl.9, 1 July 1824, 14.5 × 21.3 cm, 5 ¾ × 8 ⅜ in. Tate (T04868).

Photo courtesy of Tate (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Watercolour on laid paper
31.7 × 52 cm, 12 ½ × 20 ½ in

‘T Girtin’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Part of
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; River Scenery; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
414 as 'Kirkstall Abbey'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 1999 and 2005


Benjamin Godfrey Windus (1790–1867) (according to the 1824 mezzotint for The Rivers of England); ... Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74) (lent to London, 1862); then by descent to George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911) (lent to London, 1871; London, 1875); by a settlement to his sister, Mary Hog Barnard (née Girtin) (1828–99); bought by the Museum, 1885

Exhibition History

London, 1862, no.805 as ’Kirkstall, Yorkshire’; London, 1871, no.109; London, 1873, no.390; London, 1875, no.113 as ’Kirkstall Abbey - Morning’; London, 1968a, no.542; Paris, 1972, no.130; Manchester, 1975, no.79 as ’Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening’; Hamburg, 1976, no.208; Stoke, 1984, no.2; London, 1993, no.147 as ’Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening’; Harewood, 1999, no.15 as ’Kirkstall Abbey from the bridge, morning’; Chiba, 2002, no.18; Dulwich, 2005, no.4


Monkhouse, 1890, p.44; Binyon, 1900, pl.5; Dayot, 1908, p.287; Cundall, 1908, p.47; Rich, 1918, p.180; Stokes, 1922, frontispiece; Hind, 1923, p.241; Davies, 1924, pl.41; V&A, 1927, p.232 as 'Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire - Evening'; Cundall, 1929, p.32; Johnson, 1932, p.147; Hardie, 1934, p.6; Wilenski, 1933, p.181, p.206; Mayne, 1949, p.53, p.62, pp.65–66, p.98; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.73; Hardie, 1954, no.38; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, pp.12–13; Louden, 1969, pp.87–90; Etheridge, 1970, pp.33-34; Reynolds, 1971, pp.90–92; Lambourne and Hamilton, 1980, p.151; Brett, 1984, pp.108–09 V&A, 1985, p.92; Tate Gallery, 1996, p.21; Parkinson, 1998, pp.53–55; Herrmann, 2000, pp.40–41; Smith, 2002b, p.15, p.160; Bower, 2002, p.139; Evans, 2005, p.90; Hill, 2008, pp.41–42; Sitch, 2008, p.11; Saunders, 2011, pp.79-80; Coombs, 2012, pp.70–71

About this Work

This sadly faded though still compelling watercolour shows Kirkstall Abbey, near Leeds, from Kirkstall Bridge, with the river Aire in the foreground. Although the work was exhibited in 1875 as a morning scene (London, 1875, no.113), the title was changed to ‘Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening’, only finally to be corrected by David Hill in 1999 in the catalogue of the Thomas Girtin: Genius in the North exhibition. He noted that the view of the ruined abbey, looking north, includes the early morning sunlight slanting in from the east, and that the watercolour is therefore effectively a ‘pendant’ to Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening (TG1637), ‘contrasting morning with evening, the river with the canal, and dark skies with light’ (Hill, 1999, p.30). It is a challenge to explain how it is that a watercolour that has faded so badly that the sky has lost much of its dramatic impact, and large areas of foliage and meadow are now just a neutral earth tint, can nonetheless continue to evoke powerful associations. In part, it may be that the faded, even tone of the watercolour has actually enhanced the tranquillity of a scene that, very much in contrast with the view today, was essentially agricultural in character. The monastic buildings of the Cistercian abbey were thus used to house livestock, whilst the lay brothers’ building, seen to the left, was a barn, meaning that the herd of cattle shown in the middle ground is not a picturesque invention of the artist but a sign that the site is a working farm. All of this is contrasted with the motif of the remaining part of the crossing tower, silhouetted against the thin shred of light like a tombstone, and it is surely the continuing potency of this evocative image, as much as the mood of the watercolour, that ensures that the work still resonates. Surrounded by a flock of circling birds, and standing defiant and proud above the chaos of ruins and vegetation, the fifteenth-century tower bears witness to the abbey’s rich heyday. In doing so, it addresses the issue of mortality that was expressed in a poem written at about the time of Girtin’s visit, ‘Lines, Addressed to a company of young Persons, whilst viewing the Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey’:

The great projector of these haughty piles,
With all his riches, honours, and renown,
Hides his poor head in dust – and is no more! (Anonymous, 1797b, p.32)

Given that the original (untraced) sketches for all three important Kirkstall watercolours appear to have been made during Girtin’s stay in the nearby mansion of his patron Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) at Harewood, it comes as something of a surprise that none of the drawings were produced either for him or on commission. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that this watercolour was actually executed by Girtin for sale on the open market by Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer. A ‘Kirkstall Abbey’ is listed as one of the watercolours that Reynolds sold, or rather ‘exchanged’, in the immediate aftermath of Girtin’s death in November 1802, when works of this size fetched about £10 (Reynolds, Letter, 1803).1 The fact that this drawing conforms to the larger of the two standard sizes supplied to Reynolds, 32 × 51.7 cm (12 ⅝ × 20 ⅜ in), and that the work must have been in his possession in order for him to make a mezzotint of the composition (see the first print after, above, Neill & Son, 1883), confirms that the work was not made on commission. The fame of the composition no doubt in part relies upon the print by Reynolds, and a second by William Say (1768–1834) (see the second print after, above), whose mezzotint was published in 1824, when the work was said to be in the celebrated collection of Benjamin Godfrey Windus (1790–1867). Making allowances for the fact that the rich tonal effects of mezzotint tend to add an extra drama to the lighting of a landscape subject, both prints appear to record a watercolour that had not at that stage suffered so substantially from fading. The sky, in particular, which has long since turned to an undifferentiated monochrome in the watercolour, is clearly defined in both prints, which therefore give us better impressions of the early morning effect identified by Hill.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white laid drawing cartridge paper by an unknown Dutch manufacturer, possibly Adriaan Rogge (1732–1816) (Bower, 2002, p.139; Bower, Report). This is the same paper that Girtin used for A Mountain View, near Beddgelert (TG1322) and A View on the River Wharfe (TG1674). The work’s faded condition allows us to make out what is, for Girtin, a rare change of mind: three cows on the far bank have re-emerged as pencil outlines from under the wash used to depict the meadow.

Almost inevitably when one of Girtin’s watercolours has been engraved, a number of copies of the composition exist. The version by Amelia Long, Lady Farnborough (1772–1837) (see figure 2), may have been made after one of the mezzotints, as she is not otherwise known to have had access to the original, whilst the anonymous copy in the collection of Oldham Art Gallery could possibly be by Reynolds (see figure 1).2 As Girtin’s representative, Reynolds would have owned the drawing briefly and he may have made a copy of it as part of the process of engraving the work as a mezzotint, though the watercolour appears to be below his professional standards. Reynolds’ posthumous sale included an item titled ‘Kirkstall Abbey’, which, since it was unsold at 10s, could have been this poor-quality copy (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 18 April 1836, no.176).


Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening


1798 - 1799

A Mountain View, near Beddgelert


1800 - 1801

A View on the River Wharfe


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The letter detailing the sales of Girtin’s works by Reynolds is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1803 – Item 3).
  2. 2 The watercolour in Oldham was exhibited in the 1875 centenary exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club as by Girtin (London, 1875, no.25).

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