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Works Thomas Girtin after Thomas Hearne

Melrose Abbey: The View to the South Transept

(?) 1795

Primary Image: TG0868: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), after Thomas Hearne (1744-1817), Melrose Abbey: The View to the South Transept, (?) 1795, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 25.7 × 19.6 cm, 10 ⅛ × 7 ¾ in. British Museum, London (1878,1228.20).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum

Artist's source: Samuel Middiman (1751–1831) and William Byrne (1743–1805), after Thomas Hearne (1744–1817), etching and engraving, 'View of the Inside of the Transept of Melrose Abbey' for The Antiquities of Great-Britain, vol.1, pl.27, 1 December 1780, 25.5 × 19.6 cm, 10 × 7 ¾ in. British Museum, London (1873,1213.627).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after Thomas Hearne (1744-1817)
  • Melrose Abbey: The View to the South Transept
(?) 1795
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
25.7 × 19.6 cm, 10 ⅛ × 7 ¾ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Work from a Known Source: Contemporary British
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; The Scottish Borders

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
112 as 'Melrose Abbey'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2017


John Henderson (1764–1843); then by descent to John Henderson II (1797–1878) (lent to London, 1875); bequeathed to the Museum, 1878

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.20


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.87

About this Work

This view of the ruined interior of the abbey church at Melrose, looking towards the magnificent Decorated-style tracery of the south transept, was copied from an engraving (see the source image above) after a watercolour by Thomas Hearne (1744–1817), and it therefore predates by at least a year Girtin’s first visit to the Scottish Borders. The watercolour was commissioned by one of Girtin’s most important early patrons, the amateur artist and collector John Henderson (1764–1843), and the engraving on which the watercolour is based was presumably also from his collection. Henderson commissioned three other watercolour copies after engravings from Hearne’s outstanding collection of antiquarian subjects, Antiquities of Great-Britain (Hearne, 1786–1807), including the views Ripon Minster, from the River Skell (TG0865), Lanercost Priory Church (TG0867) and The Gatehouse, Bury St Edmunds Abbey (TG0866). Together, the drawings form a distinctive and coherent group, with each copy measuring the same size as its model and the two horizontal compositions balancing the two in a vertical format. Henderson’s patronage of Girtin largely took the form of commissioning watercolours from works that he only owned as prints or outline drawings and sketches, and in this respect it resembled the labours that the young artist undertook with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) at the home of his other great patron of the mid-1790s, Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833). The emphasis was placed squarely on the production in bulk of faithful, if unimaginative, versions of the original material, and this watercolour is typical in following its model very closely, except for the replacement of the contemplative figure seen in the foreground of the print with a reclining man with two animals of indeterminate species. The four watercolours produced after Hearne’s prints are all in the collection of the British Museum as a result of the bequest of Henderson’s son, and it is consequently possible to place the drawings together and thus appreciate the degree of unity across the group. Each employs the same simple palette of colours laid over a uniform tone of grey for the shadows, and it is easy to imagine Girtin working on all four simultaneously, adding the same tone to each of the drawings in turn.

None of the numerous copies produced by Girtin for Henderson are dated, but they generally seem to have been made around 1795–96. The small scale of the watercolours made after the Hearne prints, together with their limited palette and the retention of a number of stylistic features that originated in Girtin’s work as an apprentice to Edward Dayes (1763–1804), suggests that they were amongst the earliest works made for Henderson, and they noticeably lack the sophisticated use of line that marks many of the later commissions. Likewise, Girtin’s perspective at this date leaves something to be desired, and the seated figure, which in Hearne’s print carries a weighty moral significance, as David Morris has demonstrated in his exemplary book on the artist, here gives no more than a sense of scale to the ruins (Morris, 1989, pp.46–47). The production of watercolour copies of engravings might be thought to have been little more than hack work for a talented young artist, the earlier date of their production suggests that Girtin still had something to learn from copying Hearne’s compositions. Hearne was after all the most adept of the older generation of topographical artists at producing images that balanced the needs of the antiquarian market with the desires of customers whose interest tended more towards landscape watercolours. It is not surprising to see, therefore, that when Girtin came to depict interior views of the great monastic ruins he encountered on his travels in northern England and the Scottish Borders, including Melrose Abbey, he chose viewpoints that owed something to Hearne’s example, as in his own view of Melrose, showing the east end (TG1122).

Melrose Abbey

A poor-quality copy of Girtin’s watercolour was sold in 2005 as a work by Dayes with the incorrect title ‘Tintern Abbey’ (see figure 1). The watercolour repeats Girtin’s figure attending to the animals, suggesting strongly that it was produced by Henderson himself, working from the copy he had commissioned. Girtin also made a pencil drawing from Hearne’s composition (TG0339), and this too seems to have been made from the engraving rather than the older artist’s watercolour, which is now in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (B1986.29.412).

(?) 1795

Ripon Minster, from the River Skell


(?) 1795

Lanercost Priory Church: An Interior View of the Ruins from the South Transept


(?) 1795

The Gatehouse, Bury St Edmunds Abbey


(?) 1796

Melrose Abbey: The Ruined Presbytery and the East Window


(?) 1795

Melrose Abbey: The View to the South Transept


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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