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Works Thomas Girtin

Morpeth Bridge

(?) 1802

Primary Image: TG1709: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Morpeth Bridge, (?) 1802, graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on laid paper, 32.1 × 52.9 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ⅞ in. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (D4812).

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (All Rights Reserved)

Description
Creator(s)
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
Title
  • Morpeth Bridge
Date
(?) 1802
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on laid paper
Dimensions
32.1 × 52.9 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ⅞ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; River Scenery; The Country Town

Collection
Versions
Morpeth Bridge (TG1707)
Morpeth Bridge (TG1708)
Catalogue Number
TG1709
Girtin & Loshak Number
489iii
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002

Provenance

William Wells of Redleaf (1768–1847) (lent to SPWC, 1823); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 22 January 1857, lot 281; bought by 'Bale', £32 11s; Charles Sackville Bale (1791–1880) (lent to London, 1875); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 13 May 1881, lot 88; bought by 'Palser', £115 10s; J. Palser & Sons; bought by Edward Cohen (1816–87); then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); J. Palser & Sons; bought by Francis Watkins Keen (c.1864–1933), 8 February 1927; his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 10 November 1933, lot 119, £325 10s; the Palser Gallery, London; Norman Dakeyne Newall (1888–1952); his widow, Leslia Newall (d.1979) (lent to Newcastle, 1953); Christie’s, 13 December 1979, no.40; bought by the Museum, £70,000

Exhibition History

SPWC, 1823, no.47 as ’Morpeth’; London, 1875, no.109 'Said to be the last drawing made by the Artist'; Palser Gallery, 1932b, no.90; Palser Gallery, 1933, no.46; Amsterdam, 1936, no.221; Newcastle, 1953, no.29; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.69; Newcastle, 1982, no.89; London, 1993, no.154; Newcastle, 1993, no.31; London, 1998a, no.220; London, 2002, no.181

Bibliography

Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.85–87; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.18; Holcomb, 1974, p.31, p.53; Morris, 1987b, p.19; Bauer, 1998, p.69

About this Work

This is one of three similar watercolours that show the same view of the coaching town of Morpeth in Northumberland, which Girtin probably visited in 1800, on his way to or from the Scottish Borders (the others being TG1707 and TG1708). The view shows the ancient bridge from the south bank of the river Wansbeck, the piers of which still exist after the structure was partially dismantled in 1834, whilst the belfry seen to the left is part of the still extant chantry chapel.1 Apart from this and the gatehouse of the castle, which was the subject of another watercolour by Girtin (TG1540), Morpeth was ‘remarkable for nothing’, as one writer put it (Michell, 1845, p.188). However, perhaps as with the similar market town of Wetherby (TG1643), further south in Yorkshire, that was the point, since the subjects of Girtin’s later watercolours were increasingly taken from less well-known sites. In this case, as with Wetherby, the visit did not need a detour as the town was on a major coaching route, and Girtin’s untraced sketches may have been made during a break in his journey; this is perhaps alluded to in the inclusion of horses being watered in all three works. The crucial issue here is that the artist was able at this point in his career to find three customers for a composition that has no particular topographical or architectural interest, but where its basic components – a picturesque assemblage of buildings, an ancient bridge, a busy sky and a flat surface of water to mirror their reflections – combine to form an effective vehicle for the demonstration of Girtin’s skill. If this was the case, it was not that the subject was commonplace or typical that governed its choice, so much that anywhere with the right combination of elements might do equally.

The watercolour has survived in exceptionally good condition for a late work by Girtin, with the deep blues in the sky and their reflection in the river, the olive greens of the vegetation, and the spacious greys of the clouds all standing fast to give us a good idea of the original appearance of so many other faded examples from the last years of the artist’s life. Not surprisingly, the watercolour has attracted a good deal of praise, and rightly so because it is one of the artist’s finest achievements, and I am envious of writers such as Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak who found the words to convey something of the work’s beauties. However, I have always felt a strong resistance to the kind of writing that has arguably become redundant as a result of the high quality of modern colour reproductions, and this is only doubled in this case by the authors’ attempt to use the Morpeth view to characterise Girtin’s ‘final phase’. This, they argued, was marked by a triumphant combination of a ‘dramatic, perhaps even tragic’ sense of his own mortality, and a mastery of formal means that resulted in a transcendental ‘abstract quality’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.85–87). Likewise, I instinctively questioned the authors’ dating of the watercolour to Girtin’s last year, 1802, on the basis that they do not advance any evidence other than a strong sense that such a fine and dramatic vision ought to have been amongst his last works. Until recently, I was therefore minded to date this view of Morpeth Bridge to 1800–1801, on the grounds that it may have been supplied to Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer, and who sold it to the first known owner, William Wells (1768–1847) of Redleaf in Kent. However, the recent discovery of the accounts of the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), which includes the record of a receipt from ‘Mr Wells’ for eight guineas, dated 13 December 1802 – that is, a few weeks after the artist’s death – has changed my mind (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804).2 Wells’ collection included one work by Girtin that is actually dated 1802, Sandsend (TG1702), but the sum of eight guineas could equally relate to this depiction of Morpeth, which might therefore have been one of the works appropriated by John Girtin from the artist’s studio as a way of settling the substantial loans he had extended to his brother during his life (Smith, 2017–18, pp.35–36). Girtin only occupied his last studio, on The Strand, for six months or so, and it is not unreasonable to expect that any work taken by John from there was completed in the artist’s last year. There is therefore a good case to be made that this is indeed one of the few watercolours completed after his return from France, in April or May of 1802.

1800 - 1801

Morpeth Bridge

TG1707

1800 - 1801

Morpeth Bridge

TG1708

(?) 1800

The Gatehouse of Morpeth Castle

TG1540

(?) 1800

Wetherby: Looking through the Bridge to the Mills

TG1643

1802

Sandsend

TG1702

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

Footnotes

  1. 1 The work is the subject of an excellent blog, ‘Better than JMW Turner? Thomas Girtin’s Morpeth Bridge watercolour’ posted by the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.
  2. 2 Details are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1804 – Item 1).

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