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Works Thomas Girtin

Morpeth Bridge

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1708: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Morpeth Bridge, 1800–01, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, on an original mount made from a laminate of two sheets of paper (watermark: 1794 / J WHATMAN), 32.5 × 51.8 cm, 12 ¾ × 20 ⅜ in. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (NMW A 1837).

Photo courtesy of National Museum Wales (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Morpeth Bridge
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper, on an original mount made from a laminate of two sheets of paper (watermark: 1794 / J WHATMAN)
32.5 × 51.8 cm, 12 ¾ × 20 ⅜ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; River Scenery; The Country Town

Morpeth Bridge (TG1707)
Morpeth Bridge (TG1709)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
489ii as '1802'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and June 2018


J. Palser & Sons (stock no.2921); bought by 'Bruce', 19 April 1887; J. Palser & Sons (stock no.3653); bought by James Pyke Thompson (1846–97), 27 June 1890; Turner House Collection, Penarth; transferred to the Museum, 1921

Exhibition History

Manchester, 1975, no.104; Japan, 1986-7, no.75 (catalogue untraced); London, 2002, no.79


Radford, 1904, pp.223–24; Baxandall, 1939, p.14, p.50; Mayne, 1949, p.101

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 TG1709). The watercolour depicts the ancient bridge from the south bank of the river Wansbeck, the piers of which still exist despite the structure being partially dismantled in 1834, whilst the belfry seen to the left is part of the still extant chantry chapel. 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.

Only some of this is still apparent in this very badly faded work, however, and therein lies the particular problem with the artist’s choice of unexceptional locations since, once his effects have been compromised, the subject or the composition alone is not always enough to compensate for the loss of colour. This watercolour provides particularly good evidence of the scale of the changes that can take place, as small areas to the left and the top were protected by an old mount, leaving some of the colour unaffected. Of the fifteen pigments Girtin is known to have used, at least four are very fugitive: a blue, indigo; two yellows, gamboge and brown pink; and a purple, brown lake. This watercolour is all too typical of the result of Girtin’s choice of such unstable materials, though it is not yet possible to say precisely how it came to be as it is today. However, a description by William Henry Pyne (1770–1843) of Girtin’s working methods indicates the likely factors (Pyne, 1823a, p.67).1

Girtin’s skies are particularly susceptible, since, as Pyne noted, the azure spaces between the clouds were often created using a mix of indigo and lake, and their shadows commonly employed light red and indigo. Subsequent fading means that the blues have often disappeared entirely, whilst the grey parts of the cloud are often reduced, as here, to an orange-red. The earth pigments Girtin used for buildings and for his foregrounds are more stable, but the greens employed for depicting vegetation introduced another problem. There was no readily available dependable green pigment at this date; the variety of tones had to be mixed from blue and yellow, and, as Pyne again records, Girtin often used a combination of gamboge and indigo. As a result, many of his trees have been reduced to monochrome or a muddy khaki colour, at the expense of the original sense of depth. In this case, we can be sure that the blue employed for the grey clouds was fugitive, rather than simply faded due to excess light, because the artist must have used another pigment for the reflections of the sky in the river, and these have remained unchanged.

1800 - 1801

Morpeth Bridge


(?) 1802

Morpeth Bridge


(?) 1800

The Gatehouse of Morpeth Castle


(?) 1800

Wetherby: Looking through the Bridge to the Mills


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The account of the ‘Rise and Progress of Painting in Water Colours’ written by Pyne includes a wealth of detail on Girtin’s career and working practice, much of which was the result of watching the artist. It is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1823 – Item 1).

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