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Works Thomas Girtin

Okehampton Castle

1799 - 1800

Primary Image: TG1278: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Okehampton Castle, 1799–1800, graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on laid paper, 24.1 × 34.1 cm, 9 ½ × 13 ⅜ in. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, RI, anonymous gift (69.154.43).

Photo courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Anonymous gift (69.154.43) (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Okehampton Castle
1799 - 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on laid paper
24.1 × 34.1 cm, 9 ½ × 13 ⅜ in

‘Girtin’ lower right, 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
Castle Ruins; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Okehampton Castle (TG1277)
Okehampton Castle (TG1279)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
287i as '1798-9' (with the wrong provenance)
Description Source(s)
Museum Website


Edward Cohen (1817–86) (lent to London, 1875); 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 Guy Daniel Harvey-Samuel (1887–1960), 8 March 1927; bought by the Fine Art Society, London, 1954; bought by an anonymous collector, £288 15s; presented to the Museum, 1969

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.117 as ’Ruins of Oakhampton Church’; Fine Art Society, 1959, no.111; Washington, 1962a, no.25; Newport Art Association, 1961, no catalogue; Newport Art Association, 1969, no catalogue; Rhode Island, 1972, no.41


Cundall, 1922, p.121; Flett, 1981, pp.140–41

About this Work

This view of part of the ruins of Okehampton Castle in Devon, looking north east, is based on an on-the-spot colour sketch that Girtin made during his tour of the West Country in 1797 (TG1277). From this angle, the ruins frame a view of the village and the church tower a couple of kilometres away, with the West Okement river flowing through the landscape. Although the castle was recommended in contemporary guidebooks, its location on the edge of Dartmoor meant that it was not as well known as equivalent sites elsewhere in the country. Access to the spot was not a problem for Girtin, however, as his route in 1797 took him from the south coast of Devon to the north and a stay at Bideford, and Okehampton would have been a convenient stop on the way. The artist may have been attracted to the site by descriptions of ‘the ivy-clad ruins of the Castle, its mouldering turrets, and crumbling walls’, but equally he would already have known about how the different elements ‘conspire to form a most picturesque landscape’ from his work for his earliest patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99) (Maton, 1797, p.306). For it was Moore who commissioned Girtin, around 1792–93, to produce a finished watercolour of one of the outline drawings he made on his West Country trip (TG0131). Not surprisingly, when Girtin visited the site for himself, he chose a different viewpoint that placed the ruins in a more extensive landscape and that allowed him to display his professional skills to greater effect, though the often-noted ivy that then almost overwhelmed the castle remains a dominant motif.

The picturesque reputation of Okehampton no doubt encouraged expectations of finding a commission for a view of the castle, but it would appear that this had to wait for a few years at least, and it may even be that the work was made for sale on the open market. For, though the issue has been clouded by the watercolour’s badly faded condition, stylistically it would seem that it dates from around 1799–1800, when the artist was less dependent on commissions. Indeed, the fact that the blues in the sky have disappeared and areas of green vegetation have turned a muddy colour suggests a later date when the sound practice of Girtin’s master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), was a distant memory. Dayes, who had a thorough understanding of pigment science, cautioned against the use of more fugitive pigments, criticising students who were not prepared to ‘sacrifice brilliancy to permanency’, and I suspect that Dayes had in mind his most famous student and his practice in works such as this (Dayes, Works, p.300).1 Multiple glazes of fugitive pigments, such as indigo for the blues and gamboge for the yellows, created luminous, attention-attracting results, but this was at the expense of the work’s long-term condition, providing a sad contrast with the artist’s earlier view of Okehampton, which was painted under Dayes’ influence. One aspect of Girtin’s practice remained unchanged, however; for, as with the earlier watercolour, he still added a washline mount. Unlike the earlier work, which retains the mount, here it has been lost at some point, though the way that the signature has been cut demonstrates that it was still an integral part of the watercolour. Part of the inscription must have strayed onto the mount so that when it was removed, it took with it the lower part of the signature.

(?) 1797

Okehampton Castle


1792 - 1793

Okehampton Castle


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Dayes’ thoughts on the subject are contained in Instructions for Drawing and Coloring Landscapes which was published posthumously in 1805. It is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1805 – Item 2).

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