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Works Thomas Girtin after John Cleveley the Younger

Lava as It Has Run Over the Ridge of a Hill, Iceland

(?) 1790

Artist's source: John Cleveley the Younger (1747-86), View of Lava as it Has Run Over the Ridge of a Hill, Iceland, watercolour and pen and ink on paper, 32 × 49 cm, 12 ⅝ × 19 ¼ in. British Library, London (Add Ms 15511, f.50).

Photo courtesy of The British Library Board (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after John Cleveley the Younger (1747-1786)
  • Lava as It Has Run Over the Ridge of a Hill, Iceland
(?) 1790
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on paper
Object Type
Commissioned from Thomas Girtin; Studio Watercolour; Work from a Known Source: Contemporary British
Subject Terms
Icelandic View

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Auction Catalogue


John Thomas Stanley, 1st Baron Stanley of Alderly (1766–1850); then by descent to Suzanne Beadle; her sale, Christie's, 15 June 1982, lot 17ii

About this Work

This watercolour is part of a group of very early Icelandic scenes produced by Girtin for John Thomas Stanley (1766–1850). Stanley travelled to Iceland in the summer of 1789, following in the footsteps of his friend the famous botanist Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820), who had made the journey in 1772. On his return Stanley commissioned Philip Reinagle (1749–1833), Nicholas Pocock (1740–1821) and Girtin’s master at the time, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), to work up many of his sketches into finished watercolours as records of his trip. In 1790 Stanley also employed the fifteen-year-old Girtin, then in the second year of his apprenticeship to Dayes, to make copies of some of the watercolours that Banks had commissioned following his 1772 trip to Iceland, though the fee from the artist’s first professional engagement would have gone to his master. In all Girtin made nine watercolours based on an earlier set of drawings made for Banks by John Frederick Miller (1759–96), James Miller (active 1773–1814) and John Cleveley the Younger (1747–86). Having failed to publish them as engravings, Banks had them mounted as a souvenir of his northern journey. The four volumes, titled Drawings Illustrative of Sir Joseph Banks’s Voyage to the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Iceland, are today kept in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Library (Add Mss 15509–12). Girtin’s first dated works, which were sold by a descendant of Stanley in 1982, therefore depict a country that he did not visit and were careful copies of watercolours made by professionals from sketches they had executed in the field twenty years earlier.

Girtin’s version of Cleveley’s watercolour made following Banks’ 1772 trip (see source image above), like Mount Hekla, with Sir Joseph Banks and His Party Descending from the Volcano (TG0005), shows a scene from his excursion to the spectacular location in southern Iceland. The volcano had erupted with considerable violence for two years from 1766. The outpouring of lava and ash on a colossal scale transformed the surrounding landscape and in the process devastated the island’s economy. However, the newly cooled lava provided the ‘Philosophical Explorers’, as Banks termed his party of scientists, with a unique study opportunity (Bonehill, 2014, p.10). Cleveley’s drawing and Girtin’s copy (sadly untraced) illustrate their efforts to record the results of a major transformational event in the field. To the left, mineral samples are being collected, whilst in the centre a seated artist, presumably Cleveley himself, makes a record of the lava, with two of his companions holding up a blanket to protect him from the cold winds that blew hot ash all around and which had made the trip to Hekla a stern physical challenge.

Cleveley’s drawing is inscribed ‘view of a lava as it has run over the ridge of a hill’ and Girtin successfully preserves the sense of arrested momentum of the molten lava in his copy. But it was the group of figures that presumably attracted the attention of Stanley, and in commissioning a copy of Cleveley’s watercolour he acquired a striking image of Enlightenment enquiry that reflected the ideals behind his own expedition. The landscape may have been shorn of any picturesque qualities, but it provided instead a unique subject of scientific study for a team of gentleman scholars, and one where professional artists played a crucial role. The task for Cleveley back in England was therefore not just to create an aesthetically pleasing view from an on-the-spot study of the geology of the volcanic island but also, in making the artist the centre of the scientific field project, to emphasise the significant part played by the production of visual records in the Enlightenment voyage of discovery.


Mount Hekla, with Sir Joseph Banks and His Party Descending from the Volcano


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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