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Works Thomas Girtin

Lindisfarne: The Nave and Crossing of the Priory Church

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1108: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Lindisfarne: The Nave and Crossing of the Priory Church, 1796–97, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 52.8 × 39.3 cm, 20 ¾ × 15 ⅜ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.21).

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

Description
Creator(s)
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
Title
  • Lindisfarne: The Nave and Crossing of the Priory Church
Date
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
Dimensions
52.8 × 39.3 cm, 20 ¾ × 15 ⅜ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; Monastic Ruins

Collection
Catalogue Number
TG1108
Girtin & Loshak Number
184 as 'Interior of Lindisfarne Priory'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018

Provenance

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

Exhibition History

(?) Royal Academy, London, 1797, no.434 or no.763 as ’St. Cuthbert’s Cathedral, Holy Island’; Newcastle, 1982, no.78; London, 1984a, no.527; London, 2002, no.45

Bibliography

Binyon, 1898–1907, no.41 as 'Abbey of Lindisfarne'; Binyon, 1900, pl.10; Sparrow, 1902, p.101; Stokes, 1922, p.74; Johnson, 1932, pp.145–46

About this Work

This view of the nave of the ruined priory church at Lindisfarne, looking west from the crossing, appears to have been produced by Girtin soon after his return from his first independent tour, to the northern counties and the Scottish Borders, in 1796. Lindisfarne Priory, on Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast, is the focus of three surviving on-the-spot sketches by Girtin (TG1105, TG1109 and TG1112). From these he executed studio watercolours of five different compositions, making the priory ruins one of the most significant subjects that he sketched on the 1796 tour. The sketch on which this work is based has not been traced, but there is no doubt that the imposing watercolour was the outcome of Girtin’s close observation of the scene at first hand, unlike his first effort at this view (TG0210). This was painted around 1793 from a sketch by Girtin’s earliest patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99) (see TG0210 figure 1), who not surprisingly struggled to master the complex perspective of the view into the north transept and failed totally to capture the dramatic spectacle of the surviving arch of the crossing tower as it forms a ‘semicircle over the chasm’, as the writer William Hutchinson (1732–1814) termed it (Hutchinson, 1785–94, vol.3, p.364). Working on the spot, Girtin was able not only to make sense of the structure of the ruins but also to adopt a viewing point that helps to monumentalise a site that, though highly picturesque in its untouched state, was not particularly imposing in reality. As with the comparable view of the west end viewed from the north aisle of the nave (TG1107), one is tempted to attribute the way in which Girtin has enhanced the subject’s drama – by framing the view with the masonry of the choir cut at the top and sides – to the example of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78) (see TG1107 figure 2). Though Piranesi’s influence may have been filtered through the work of John Robert Cozens (1752–97), there is little doubt that it was ultimately the example of his work that helped Girtin to achieve a new monumentality in his architectural scenes around 1797. The importance of Girtin’s personal experience of a location has one more element to it, namely that the stone colour in this and some of the other Lindisfarne views may seem rather gaudy, but it is in fact quite accurate. The red sandstone, as Hutchinson again noted, was crucial to the effect of the ruins since ‘it yields much to time and renders the aspect of the building dark and melancholy’.

The comparable view of the interior of Lindisfarne Priory (TG1107) was almost certainly exhibited at the 1797 Royal Academy exhibition as one of two works with the title ‘St. Cuthbert’s Cathedral, Holy Island’ (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1797, nos.434 and 763). This, the much bigger work, was probably the other one to be exhibited, rather than either TG1106 or TG1110. The 1797 view was commissioned by James Moore (1762–99), and, though the identity of the earliest owner of this work is not known, it is inconceivable that such a large and imposing watercolour was not ordered from Girtin by a significant patron. Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) is best known today for his employment of Girtin and his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) in copying the sketches of Cozens. However, he also commissioned at least three major watercolours from Girtin’s sketches made on the 1796 northern tour, including views of Durham (TG0919) and Jedburgh (TG1231), and he must be the prime candidate here as well. Perhaps this was one of the works sold from his collection in 1820 to Chambers Hall (1786–1855) through the auspices of John Linnell (1792–1882). The Lindisfarne view came to the British Museum from Hall’s collection and it may therefore be the watercolour that Linnell referred to when he noted that he had ‘Brought away a drawing by Girtin to sell price 10 gs.’ (Linnell, Journal, 1817–23).1

Lindisfarne: The Interior of the Priory Church

Turner employed the same upright composition for his on-the-spot sketch of the interior of the ruins at Lindisfarne, made on his tour to the north east in the following year, 1797 (see figure 1). As on a number of occasions when sketching in York (see TG1655 figure 1), Durham (see TG1073 figure 1) and Warkworth (see TG1098 figure 1), Turner seems to have had Girtin’s earlier drawing in mind when he adopted the same viewpoint to work from, and, as David Hill first proposed, it is likely that he studied his colleague’s sketches before setting out on his later tour (Hill, 1996, pp.4–5). Girtin’s untraced original sketch would have appeared very similar to Turner’s, but, although it was probably on roughly the same scale, it would have been produced on a separate sheet of paper rather than in a sketchbook, as was Turner’s practice at this time.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used as a laid cartridge paper produced by an unknown English manufacturer, and it is the same as the material Girtin used for a copy of an etching by Piranesi (TG0886) (Smith, 2002b, p.71; Bower, Report). The low-grade paper is marked by a large number of spots, visible particularly in the sky, where impurities have become discoloured. The horizontal lines apparent across the sheet, though particularly visible in the darker areas to the left, are caused by the watercolour washes sinking into the troughs left by the laid lines of the paper mould used in the manufacture of the coarse-textured cartridge paper.

(?) 1796

Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church

TG1105

(?) 1796

An Exterior View of the Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Church

TG1109

(?) 1796

Lindisfarne Castle

TG1112

1792 - 1793

Lindisfarne Priory Church, Looking West from the Choir

TG0210

1797

An Interior View of the Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Church

TG1107

1797

An Interior View of the Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Church

TG1107

1797 - 1798

Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church

TG1106

1797 - 1798

An Exterior View of the Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Church

TG1110

1796 - 1797

Durham Cathedral, from the South West

TG0919

1796 - 1797

The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey

TG1231

1797 - 1798

The Temple of Augustus at Pula in Istria

TG0886

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

Footnotes

  1. 1 The relevant entries from Linnell’s journal are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1820 – Item 1).

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