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Works Thomas Girtin

Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill


Primary Image: TG1635: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill, 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 32 × 51.7 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ⅜ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.53).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
32 × 51.7 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ⅜ in

‘Girtin 1800’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Rivers Scenery; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
388 as 'Kirkstall Abbey'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018


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

Exhibition History

London, 1934a, no.350; London, 1958d, section 62; Vienna, 1965, no.58; Detroit, 1968, no.114; London, 1984b, no.177; London, 1985, no.79 as ’Kirkstall Abbey’; Cleveland, 1991, no.39; London, 2002, no.160 as ’Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill’


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.38; Binyon, 1900, pl.5; Stokes, 1922, p.32; Davies, 1924, pl.40; Dickey, 1931, p.169; Johnson, 1932, pp.146–47; Mayne, 1949, p.66; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.73–74; Boase, 1959, p.34; Lister, 1973, pp.167–68; Rosenblum, 1975, p.28; Ushenko, 1979, pp.234–35; Egerton, 1979, p.10;  Klonk, 1996, p.122; Hill, 1996, pp.27–28; Kriz, 1997, fig.27; Shanes, 1997, pp.46–47; Thornes, 1999, p.179; Thornes, 2000, p.367; Bermingham, 2001, p.135; Eisenman and others, 2002, p.123; Stainton, 2005, pp.18–19; Zhang, 2006, pp.113–14; Hill, 2008, pp.41–42; Sitch, 2008, p.11; Barker, 2012, p.328; Postle and Simon, 2014, p.152

About this Work

Kirkstall Abbey: Distant View from the South-East, with the Valley of the Aire

Although Girtin painted at least two close-up views of Kirkstall Abbey early in his career (TG0144 and TG0147), after sketches by the amateur James Moore (1762–99), he does not appear to have visited the site until 1800, when, as in this work, taken looking north west from Kirkstall Hill, he concentrated on the appearance of the ruins from a distance. This was not unusual even amongst antiquarian travellers, for although Kirkstall was regarded as a fine ‘specimen of architecture’, the reputation of the ruins ‘as a feature in a landscape’ was also high, second in the north of England only to Bolton Priory (Whitaker, 1805, p.64). Those in search of the latter quality were recommended by Edward Dayes (1763–1804), Girtin’s master, to ‘ascend the high grounds’, from where they would ‘be gratified by the sight of some fine open scenes’ (Dayes, Works, p.42). And this was precisely what Girtin did, perhaps following the example of his colleague Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), who sketched a similar view in 1797 (see figure 1), though Girtin surely did not actually use Turner’s drawing in the production of his watercolour, as David Hill has suggested (Hill, 1996, p.27). From such an elevated situation, one can appreciate the distinctive combination of elements that encouraged a different set of associations from Bolton Priory. Thus, in addition to the attractions of the ‘venerable ruin, a winding river … [and] woods in full foliage’, the setting included ‘the verdure of the neighbouring fields’, a village, and signs of human endeavour and prosperity, not least in the form of Kirkstall Forge, the smoke of which can be seen in the centre of Girtin’s composition. Therefore, unlike in Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning (TG1636), where the skeletal remains of the building, surrounded by black crows, are silhouetted against a dark sky, Girtin shows the ruins in full sunlight in an ‘agreeable’ prospect of the rich and diverse landscape of the valley of the river Aire (Dallas, 1797, p.3) – one that has long since been lost to the rapid and inexorable expansion of the city of Leeds. This is somewhat presaged in the third and final view of Kirkstall, painted by Girtin in 1802, Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening (TG1637), which includes more of the area’s industrial infrastructure and thus completes what amounts to as thorough an exploration of an architectural motif as the artist ever attempted.

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 final drawings were produced either for him or on commission. Indeed, there is some evidence that this watercolour was actually produced 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, 32.1 × 51.7 cm (12 ⅝ × 20 ⅜ in), combined with the crucial detail that it is dated (to confirm that it was not old and unsold stock), further suggests that this was not a work made on commission. We do not know for sure who the first owner of the drawing was, though there is some evidence that points to James Stuart-Wortley, 1st Baron Wharncliffe (1776–1845). He lent a watercolour titled ‘Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire’ to an exhibition in 1824 (Exhibitions: London, 1824, no.47) and this attracted a positive review that described a work that ‘Represents a large expanse of country, partially shadowed by dense masses of cloud that are floating across the sky’, and that certainly covers the effect seen here (Imperial Gazette, 1 May 1824).

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white laid wrapping paper by an unknown English manufacturer (Smith, 2002b, p.210; Bower, Report). This is the same paper that Girtin used for A Mill in Essex (TG1416), Barns and a Pond, Said to Be near Bromley (TG1419), Cottages at Hawes (TG1694) and A Distant View of Guisborough Priory (TG1699). The work is in excellent condition, showing how other Yorkshire views of the same date (such as TG1674) would have looked in their pre-faded state, with the ‘large rolling cumulous’ clouds in particular illustrating the losses that have all too typically occurred in Girtin’s skies (Thornes, 1999, p.179). The watercolour’s fine state of preservation allowed the late Eric Shanes, in a tour de force of technical exposition, to trace the way in which the artist used fifteen different tones to create the final rich effect seen here, working each colour mix across the sheet of paper before turning to the next, in a good example of what the writer termed the ‘scale practice’ (Shanes, 1997, p.46). Girtin almost certainly completed the process by mounting the drawing himself on a support that probably had a simple washline surround. This can be inferred from the fact that the artist’s signature, which must have been added last of all, has lost some of its lower extent, having strayed onto the mount and been lost when the fashion for displaying watercolours changed and the original support was removed.

1792 - 1793

Kirkstall Abbey, from the North West


1792 - 1793

Kirkstall Abbey, from the South East


1800 - 1801

Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning



Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening


(?) 1799

A Mill in Essex


1799 - 1800

Barns and a Pond, Said to Be near Bromley


1800 - 1801

Cottages at Hawes, from Gayle Beck


1800 - 1801

A Distant View of Guisborough Priory; The Tithe Barn, Abbotsbury


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).

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