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Works Thomas Girtin

Melrose Abbey, from the North East

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1124: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Melrose Abbey, from the North East, 1796–97, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 34.4 × 42.2 cm, 13 ½ × 16 ⅝ in. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, purchased as the gift of Paul Mellon (1978.22).

Photo courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased as the gift of Paul Mellon (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Melrose Abbey, from the North East
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
34.4 × 42.2 cm, 13 ½ × 16 ⅝ in

‘Melrose Abbey / on the Tweed’ on the back of the lining

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; The Scottish Borders

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Thomas Brown; his sale, Christie's, 5 June 1869, lot 274 as 'A Ruined Abbey'; bought by Thos. Agnew & Sons, £54 (stock no.9313); bought by John Heugh (c.1813–78), 14 June; his sale, Christie’s, 24 April 1874, lot 80 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; bought by 'Colnaghi', £136 10s; James Worthington (lent to London, 1884); Henry Worthington; ... Sotheby's, 10 October 1974, lot 27 as by Edward Dayes, unsold; Christie’s, 1 March 1977, lot 116 as by Thomas Girtin; bought by Spink & Son Ltd, London, £6,000; bought from them 1978, as the gift of Paul Mellon (1907–99)

Exhibition History

London, 1884, no.169 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; Spink’s, London, 1978, no.8; New York, 1992, no.47; Brussels, 1994, no.46; New York, 1998, no.74; New York, 2010, no.39


Armstrong, 1902, p.266 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner, formerly in the collection of Henry Worthington; Mallalieu, 1985, p.81

About this Work

This view of the ruined abbey church in the Scottish Border town of Melrose was long attributed to Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), and, though it is now generally accepted to be by Girtin, Tom Girtin (1913–94) stated that ‘I still think this is by Turner’ (Girtin Archive, 32). I have some sympathy with the view, though not because I think Turner painted the watercolour but rather because there is something unsatisfactory about this image of one of Scotland’s finest Gothic monuments that does not quite do justice to the subject. In this respect, it is instructive to compare the work with another view of the exterior of Melrose that Girtin painted around 1793 for his earliest patron, the antiquarian James Moore (1762–99) (TG0196), which he worked up from a drawing that the amateur had produced on his own visit to Melrose in 1792 (see TG0196 figure 1). There is no question that Girtin’s later view of Melrose benefited greatly from being painted from his own, untraced, sketch, but it still shares with the earlier watercolour a certain earnestness to include everything – to add detail to detail to create a record of a building rather than to produce an attractive work in its own right. In contrast to the bulk of the views of the nation’s great Gothic monuments that Girtin produced subsequent to the tour, there is no attempt to dramatise the scene by cutting the view in a novel way or to seek out a new angle from which to show the building, and as a result the image seems a little bland. This is so much the case that I have toyed with the idea that it might also have been produced after a drawing by Moore. However, the firm grasp of the complex perspective of the building is arguably beyond the amateur’s capabilities, and the manner in which we can look into the building and get a real sense of depth ultimately convinces me that this is a work of about 1797–98 made from a Girtin on-the-spot sketch. Perhaps the problem lies with the artist’s choice of a smooth wove paper over the rougher cartridges that he was generally using by this date, which undermines the broader effects he increasingly looked to create. I think this is supposed to be an evening effect, as indicated by the lengthy shadow cast by the reclining figure, but the distribution of light and shade across the building is not entirely consistent with that. Moreover, the effect of the evening light means that the colour of the stone has taken on a rather jaundiced appearance that bears little resemblance to the rich red hue of the sandstone from which the abbey is built, and in other circumstances this might again raise the question of whether the artist had in fact visited the site when he painted this work.

(?) 1794

Melrose Abbey, from the South West


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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