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Works Thomas Girtin

La Rue Saint-Denis, Paris: A Scene for Thomas Dibdin's Pantomime Harlequin's Habeas


Primary Image: TG1891: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), La Rue Saint-Denis, Paris: A Scene for Thomas Dibdin's Pantomime 'Harlequin's Habeas', 1802, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 39.6 × 49 cm, 15 ⅝ × 19 ¼ in. Private Collection, Norfolk (I/E/16).

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hollow (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • La Rue Saint-Denis, Paris: A Scene for Thomas Dibdin's Pantomime Harlequin's Habeas
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
39.6 × 49 cm, 15 ⅝ × 19 ¼ in
Object Type
Study for a Theatrical Scene
Subject Terms
Paris and Environs; Street Scene

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
474ii as 'La Rue St.-Denis'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002, 2013 and April 2022


Archdeacon Charles Parr Burney (1785–1864); P & D Colnaghi & Co.; bought from them by Dr John Percy (1817–89), £7; his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 17 April 1890, lot 515; bought by 'Colnaghi', £24 3s; P & D Colnaghi & Co.; Sir James Thomas Knowles (1831–1908); his posthumous sale, Christie's, 28 May 1908, lot 306; bought by Carfax Gallery, £120 15s; bought by Christopher Head (1869-1912); after his death on the Titanic, sold by his executors to P & D Colnaghi & Co., 1913; bought from them by Sir Hickman Bacon (1855–1945), £110; then by descent

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1914, no.43; London, 1927, no catalogue; Agnew’s, 1931, no.106; London, 1934b, no.892; Amsterdam, 1936, no.219; Agnew’s, 1946, no.99; Arts Council, 1946, no.84; Boston, 1948, no.135; Arts Council, 1951, no.85; Bedford, 1952, no.43; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.60; Norwich, 1955, no.38; Geneva, 1955, no.74; New York, 1956, no.41; King’s Lynn, 1967, no.45; Paris, 1972, no.133; Manchester, 1975, no.98; Munich, 1979, no.196; Manchester, 1983, no.26; London, 1993, no.151; Dulwich, 2001, no.12; London, 2002, no.178; Ghent, 2007, no.128; London, 2011, no number; Kendal, 2012, no.9; London, 2013, no.5


Roget, 1891, vol.1, p.112; Binyon, 1900, p.30; Davies, 1924, p.27, pl.88; Davies, 1928, p.221; Binyon, 1933, p.111; Oppé, 1946b, p.128; Mayne, 1949, p.60, p.72, p.106; Williams, 1952, p.105; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.44, p.80; Piper, 1965, pp.93–94 Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.8; Wilton, 1977, p.32, p.188; Vaughan, 1978, pp.190-91; Gibbs, 2001, p.64; Bower, 2002, p.141; Wilcox, 2012, p.12

About this Work

This view, looking towards Porte Saint-Denis, was used as the basis for a scene in Thomas Dibdin’s (1771–1841) pantomime Harlequin’s Habeas, or The Hall of Spectres, which opened on 27 December 1802, a month or so after Girtin’s death. It was one of a number of theatrical productions set in France that appeared during the brief cessation of hostilities between Britain and France known as the Peace of Amiens, and the second act, according to Songs, Chorusses, and a Sketch of the Scenery in Harlequin’s Habeas, featured as a set for scene seven ‘St. Dennis’s Gate, Paris. From a Drawing taken on the Spot by the late Mr. Girtin.’ The previous scene, showing ‘Pont-au-Change, Conciergerie, &c.’ was also based on a drawing by Girtin (Dibdin, 1802). Both of the subjects were included in Girtin’s collection of aquatints that appeared after his death as Twenty of the Most Picturesque Views in Paris and Its Environs; this scene was published as plate ten (see print after TG1877b), whilst the Conciergerie prison appears in plate nine (see print after TG1876a). However, although it is possible that the scenes were painted from Girtin’s soft-ground etchings, or the pencil outlines taken on the spot in France on which they were based, it has generally been assumed that this watercolour was made specially for Dibdin’s production after the artist’s return to London in April 1802 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.199). If this was indeed the case, then just as with the colour sketches that Girtin made in the studio for his panorama of London (such as TG1854), the watercolour would have been handed to professional scene painters to transfer the design onto canvas, and it was presumably at this stage that the paper was cut horizontally near the top. The fact that the watercolour has quite different proportions from the print, being almost double the height, and at the same time excludes any figures, suggests that it was produced at a later date as a model for a theatrical scene, where figures, in particular, would have been inappropriate if not disruptive.

However, the discovery by the paper historian Peter Bower that the support used by Girtin, a white laid paper, was made by an unknown French manufacturer has cast some doubt on the idea that the work was produced in England (Smith, 2002b, p.141; Bower, Report). Of course, it is possible that the artist acquired the paper in France and brought it back with him. However, the fact that the same support was employed for Paris: Porte Saint-Denis (TG1892), which was almost certainly made on the spot early in 1802, opens this up as a distinct possibility for this watercolour too. The key to understanding the process at work here may well be a letter that the artist sent to his brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), in which he described how he had begun ‘to skech on a Large scale, and to Colour on the spot’ but had ‘altered my plan’ as continuing ‘would have been very tedious’ (Girtin, Letter, 1802).1 A not unreasonable assumption from this would be that the Views in Paris began not as pencil outlines but as large on-the-spot colour sketches, and that Paris: Porte Saint-Denis is an example of Girtin’s initial procedure. Following from that, might it be that this large view of the triumphal arch, from the opposite direction, was also a leftover from the first phase of the Views in Paris project, and that rather than it having been produced specifically for the theatre, this was a case of the artist finding a new use for an old on-the-spot sketch? At this distance in time, it is difficult to be sure either way, though, despite the evidence of the paper, I still slightly favour the view that the drawing was produced in London, having discounted the possibility that a commission for a design preceded the artist’s return.

Whatever the case, Girtin sadly did not see the fruits of his labour, dying prior to the opening of Harlequin’s Habeas in December 1802. The pantomime ran for a respectable thirty-five performances at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and it attracted much praise, specifically for its scenery. Writing on the new ‘Christmas pantomime’, one reviewer singled out the ‘immense expense’ allowed ‘for scenery, which chiefly represents some of the most striking objects on the road to Paris: – the gates of Calais, Quillacque’s hotel there, the Pont au Change, Conciergerie, Pont Neuf, &c. and St. Denis’s gate at Paris’ (Monthly Mirror, January 1803, p.56). The plot, according to another critic, involved ‘a tour through part of France, with a succession of escapes and adventures’ that depended on ‘a great variety of scenes, finely executed’ (Sporting Magazine, January 1803, p.205). Girtin’s view of the seventeenth-century triumphal arch from the Rue Saint-Denis, looking south, was presumably relevant to the production because this was the entry point into the city for British visitors, though the fact that it had been ‘taken on the Spot by the late Mr. Girtin’ must also have added to its significance (Dibdin, 1802).


The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs: Possible Colour Study for Plate Ten of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’



The Pont au Change, the Théâtre de la Cité, the Pont Neuf and the Conciergerie Prison, Taken from the Pont Notre Dame: Colour Study for Plate Nine of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’


(?) 1801

Westminster and Lambeth: Colour Study for the ‘Eidometropolis’, Section Three



Paris: Porte Saint-Denis and the Boulevard Saint-Denis


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 From a letter to the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821). The only surviving letter from Thomas Girtin includes crucial evidence about the artist’s work in Paris and is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1802 – Item 2).

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