For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are the instructions how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.
Works Thomas Girtin

Melrose Abbey: The Ruined Presbytery and the East Window

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1123: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Melrose Abbey: The Ruined Presbytery and the East Window, 1796–97, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 58 × 47.3 cm, 22 ⅞ × 18 ⅝ in. Cooper Gallery, Barnsley (CP/TR 355).

Photo courtesy of Trustees of the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley Museums (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Melrose Abbey: The Ruined Presbytery and the East Window
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
58 × 47.3 cm, 22 ⅞ × 18 ⅝ in

‘T. Girtin’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin (the signature has been cut, suggesting that it once extended onto an original mount which has been lost)

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

Melrose Abbey: The Ruined Presbytery and the East Window (TG1122)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
317 as 'Melrose Abbey'; 'c. 1799'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Christie’s, 30 July 1928, lot 28 as 'Tintern Abbey, with a shepherd and dog'; bought by Messrs. Pawsey & Payne, £231; Thos Agnew & Sons, 1931 (stock no.1092); T. M. Brown; Captain Roland Addy (d.1962); his widow, Joan Thirsk; bequeathed to the Gallery, 1978

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1931, no.130; Agnew’s, 1933, no.82; Agnew’s, 1936, no.85


Gallimore, 2016, p.53

About this Work

This much faded watercolour depicts the ruined presbytery of Melrose Abbey, with the fine fourteenth-century east window showing prominently. It is based on a partially coloured on-the-spot sketch that Girtin made on his 1796 trip to the north east and the Scottish Borders (TG1122). The detailed sketch carefully records the form of the ornate vaulting and the great Perpendicular five-light window, and, because the artist adopted an off-centre position to the south, he was also able to include a clear view of one of the undamaged bays of the north arcade of the presbytery. In other words, the sketch could not have been better calculated to display some of the outstanding architectural features of the first phase of the rebuilding of the abbey, between 1385 and 1400, following the destructive assault on the building by an English army. The scale of the rebuilt church and the quality of its detailing meant that even in its partly ruined state it was an object of great interest for antiquarians. The almost diagrammatic clarity of Girtin’s sketch suggests that he visited the site with a commission to depict a specific view and that this was stipulated by the patron for its architectural content rather than for any picturesque qualities. Certainly, when Girtin came to paint this large watercolour back in the studio, he followed his sketch closely, down to replicating the play of light across the masonry, which he had recorded with a wash of monochrome on the spot, though he did omit the flying buttress to the left, which appears in the original drawing to be suspended in mid-air. The artist’s one concession to more picturesque concerns was to include areas of the surrounding landscape glimpsed through the arcade to the left and the defenestrated tracery in the centre, but even the shepherd and his dog are deployed to enhance the structure’s scale.

Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak dated the watercolour to 1799 – that is, before Girtin’s second trip to the Scottish Borders, in 1800, but later than the bulk of the works that were made after drawings produced on the 1796 tour. However, they were not aware of the existence of the sketch when they compiled their catalogue of the artist’s works (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.177). Andrew Wilton, in contrast, dated the on-the-spot sketch to 1800, which would make the watercolour even later, but that is surely not right (Wilton, 2001, pp.91–92). The scale of the watercolour, its emphasis on the architectural content and the adoption of an oblique viewing point to monumentalise the structure all point to a date soon after the 1796 tour, and, although the issue has been clouded by the work’s poor, faded condition, a comparison with the similarly sized and equally detailed view of York Minster (TG1050) backs up this claim. One further detail that links the work to many of the larger watercolours produced following the 1796 tour is the way in which the lower part of Girtin’s signature has been lost. This does not mean that the drawing has been cut down; rather, it indicates that it was initially surrounded by the artist’s original border, onto which the inscription had partly strayed, so that when the mount was removed, part of Girtin’s signature disappeared with it. Such a border was an integral part of Girtin’s watercolours at this date, even of works framed for display, and it may be that the large scale of this work means that it was hung on the wall for a long period after its completion; this would certainly account for its poor state of preservation. The destructive consequences of the fading of Girtin’s later watercolours was often down, at least partly, to the artist’s use of fugitive pigments, but that is less likely to have been an issue here, where, I suspect, the work’s place within a decorative wall display in a domestic context ultimately consigned it to its sad fate.

(?) 1796

Melrose Abbey: The Ruined Presbytery and the East Window


1796 - 1797

The South Side of York Minster, Showing the Transept and the Western Towers


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

Revisions & Feedback

The website will be updated from time to time and, when changes are made, a PDF of the previous version of each page will be archived here for consultation and citation.

Please help us to improve this catalogue

If you have information, a correction or any other suggestions to improve this catalogue, please contact us.