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

On the River Exe, Exeter

1799 - 1800

Primary Image: TG1261: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), On the River Exe, Exeter, 1799–1800, watercolour on laid paper, 29.9 × 52.1 cm, 11 ¾ × 20 ½ in. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (1208–3).

Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • On the River Exe, Exeter
1799 - 1800
Medium and Support
Watercolour on laid paper
29.9 × 52.1 cm, 11 ¾ × 20 ½ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Panoramic Format; River Scenery; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

On the River Exe, Exeter (TG1260)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
201ii as 'On the Exe, near Exeter'; '1799'
Description Source(s)
Gallery Website


Charles Sackville Bale (1791–1880); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 13 May 1881, lot 86; bought by 'Palser', £31 10s (Palser Records: '19 gns'); J. Palser & Sons; bought by Edward Cohen (1816–87), 1881; then by bequest to his niece, Isabella Oswald (1838–1905); her posthumous sale, Robins & Hine, 30 March 1905, lot unknown; Sir Edward Marsh (1872–1953); bought from him by Thos. Agnew & Sons (stock no.9710), 3 May 1920; bought from them by the Museum, 22 February 1921, £425

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1921, no.21


Galbally, 1987, pp.178–79

About this Work

This sadly faded watercolour, showing the river Exe at Exeter, is based on a drawing that Girtin made on his West Country tour in the autumn of 1797 (TG1260). The artist is documented as having been in the city in early November, sketching the interior of the cathedral for his earliest patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99) (TG1256) (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804).1 At the same time, Girtin also made a drawing of the sixteenth-century Guildhall (TG1255), as well as a number of views along the river Exe that were to yield two further studio watercolours, Exeter, from Trew’s Weir (TG1258) and Exeter Cathedral, from the South (TG1259). This view of the river from Haven Banks, with the recently completed bridge in the distance and the industrial area of Shilhay on the east bank to the right, is the most panoramic of the compositions, noticeably more so than the sketch on which it is based. In contrast to the focus on the medieval heart of the city that Moore’s commission prompted from Girtin, this work includes a range of warehouses and other industrial buildings, together with their attendant shipping on the river. This creates an image of the modern port that has more in common with the views of Bristol that resulted from the second half of the artist’s West Country tour (such as TG1727) than with the images of south-coast resorts such as Lyme Regis and Teignmouth, which predominated in the first part of the trip.

How soon after the trip this work was produced is difficult to say precisely, especially given its extremely faded condition, which has seen the sky lost completely and the reflections in the large expanse of water in the foreground significantly reduced. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak dated it to 1799, but it may even be from a little later as the artist added more fugitive pigments into his palette the further he moved away from the influence of his early master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), whose writings on the watercolour medium illustrate a clear understanding of the science of colour (Dayes, Works, pp.298–300).2 How much the work’s poor condition has affected the appearance of the sloop shown to the right of the composition is another matter, however. Girtin may have sketched numerous port scenes on his tour along the Devon and Dorset coasts, but, unlike his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), he showed no great interest in the minutiae of maritime scenery, and in this case the form of the vessel is characteristically weak.

(?) 1797

On the River Exe, Exeter



The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave


(?) 1797

The Guildhall, Exeter


1798 - 1799

Exeter, from Trew’s Weir


1798 - 1799

Exeter Cathedral, from the South



Bristol Harbour, with St Mary Redcliffe in the Distance


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The financial records of the artist's brother John Girtin (1773–1821) include two loans he made to Thomas Girtin during the trip. The records are transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1804 – Item 1).
  2. 2 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).

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.