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Works Thomas Girtin

Paris: Porte Saint-Denis and the Boulevard Saint-Denis


Primary Image: TG1892: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Paris: Porte Saint-Denis and the Boulevard Saint-Denis, 1802, graphite and watercolour on laid paper (watermark: ornamented Strasbourg Bend), 46 × 60.3 cm, 18 ⅛ × 23 ¾ in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (37-1886).

Photo courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Paris: Porte Saint-Denis and the Boulevard Saint-Denis
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper (watermark: ornamented Strasbourg Bend)
46 × 60.3 cm, 18 ⅛ × 23 ¾ in

‘off part are good effect’ top right, by Thomas Girtin; 'DEPOT / A / TABAC; ROSEU (?) TRAITEUR' as shop and street signs

Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
City Life and Labour; Paris and Environs; Street Scene

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
480 as 'Porte St.-Denis, Paris'; '1801-2'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2013


Thomas Girtin (1775–1802); his posthumous sale, possibly Christie’s, 1 June 1803, lot 28 as 'Port St. Denis', £4 6s; ... C. F. Tomkins; his sale, Christie’s, 15 May 1845, lot 157; ... J. Hogarth and Sons; bought from them by the Museum, 1886

Exhibition History

Bristol, 1906, no.64; Paris, 1938, no.209; Paris, 1953, no.54; Paris, 1972, no.134; Manchester, 1975, no.99; Bordeaux, 1977, no.17; London, 1994, no.36; London, 2002, no.177; London, 2013, no.4


Finberg, 1919, p.14; Davies, 1924, p.27, pl.89; V&A, 1927, p.232; Davies, 1928, p.221; Binyon, 1933, p.111; Bury, 1942, p.42; Mayne, 1949, p.45, p.60, pp.70–71, p.98; Williams, 1952, pp.105–6; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.80; Lemaître, 1955, p.202; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.8; Lambourne and Hamilton, 1980, p.151; Hackney, 1992, p.46; Finch, 1991, pp.41–42; Bower, 2002, p.141

About this Work

Porte Saint-Denis, Paris

This fine colour sketch shows the seventeenth-century Porte Saint-Denis from the south west, from the Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle, a view that is remarkably unchanged today (see figure 1). The suggestion that the large sheet dates from Girtin’s stay in Paris across the winter of 1801–2 is supported by the presence of an inscription to the top right (‘off part are good effect’), the unfinished foreground and the use of a limited number of tints, all of which are typical of a drawing coloured on the spot, though the reserved spaces for figures are normally associated with unfinished studio works, such as St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury (TG1756). The key to understanding the drawing’s status may lie with a letter the artist sent to his brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), in April 1802 in which he announced that he had hitherto sketched ‘from the windows of Hackey Coaches’, presumably due to concerns about attracting unwelcome attention as a foreigner, but had recently ‘altered my plan’. Continuing ‘to skech on a Large scale, and to Colour on the spot … would have been very tedious’, he added. Presumably, the artist was gathering material for Picturesque Views in Paris so that the change of plan, whereby he was for ‘getting the Best views I can. & merely skeches’, meant producing pencil drawings such as The Ile de la Cité, with the Louvre and the Pont Neuf in the Distance (TG1865), rather than much larger colour drawings like this example (Girtin, Letter, 1802).1 On balance, therefore, I suspect that this is an unused sketch for that publication, and that it was working in colour on this scale that proved impractical.

The triumphal arch known as the Porte Saint-Denis was on the route by which most British visitors entered Paris from the north, and this might explain why Girtin chose it as one of the views in Picturesque Views in Paris (TG1877), whilst the rest of the scenes selected for the publication focus on the river Seine. The drawing of the more distant view of the gateway that Girtin actually used for his publication likewise includes the revolutionary slogan ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’, which had replaced ‘LUDOVICO MAGNO’, and this is one of the few overt signs of recent revolutionary events. Nonetheless, the emphasis in this work too, had it been realised as either a print or a studio watercolour, would no doubt have been on life continuing as normal, as the crowds go about their daily business under even more prominent signs for ‘TRAITEUR’ (caterer) and ‘TABAC’ (tobacco), with the Boulevard Saint-Denis featuring just as much as the monumental gateway. It is to be remembered that the Paris prints were published with their titles in both French and English, and, until the resumption of hostilities between the two nations, they were aimed equally at the two markets, so it clearly would not have paid to evoke memories of recent violent events.

The paper historian Peter Bower has described the support used by Girtin as a white laid paper, manufactured by an unknown French maker, and this tends to confirm the idea that the work was made on the spot, rather than being an unfinished studio work created back in England (Smith, 2002b, p.141; Bower, Report). The same paper was also employed by Girtin for a view of the arch from the opposite direction (TG1891), which might suggest that the other work too was made on the spot. That work has always been said to be the basis for a theatre scene described in a contemporary playbill as showing ‘St Dennis’s Gate, Paris’, but in fact there is no proof that it was not this different composition that was worked up by the scene painters at Covent Garden (Dibdin, 1802). However, the presence here of figures, which would have been inappropriate if not disruptive in a theatrical scene, suggests this was probably not the case.

Porte Saint-Denis, Paris

The sketch appears to have been copied, on a much reduced scale, by Girtin’s friend and colleague Henry Edridge (1768–1821) (see figure 2). It is not known how Edridge came to have access to the sketch; however, given that he is known to have collected Girtin’s work (such as TG1309) and also painted his portrait in miniature (TG1928), it is possible that he owned either it or another version of the composition. The latter is suggested by the fact that the figures, which are only blocked out in Girtin’s drawing, are actually shown more complete in the copy, and there are a number of other details that are no more than hinted at in the sketch, such as the shutters and the iron work on the balcony on the building to the left, that were more carefully worked out by Edridge. However, the fact that the copy replicates the same restricted range of tones as the Girtin sketch suggests that it was this watercolour that Edridge worked from, and that he perhaps saw his task as completing a sketch that had been left unfinished.

(?) 1802

St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury



The Ile de la Cité, with the Louvre and the Pont Neuf in the Distance, Taken from the Pont Marie: Pencil Study for Plate Three of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’



The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs: Possible Study for Plate Ten of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’



La Rue Saint-Denis, Paris: A Scene for Thomas Dibdin’s Pantomime ‘Harlequin’s Habeas’


1798 - 1799

The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle


(?) 1796

Portrait Miniature of Thomas Girtin


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 From a letter to the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821). The only surviving letter from Thomas Girtin includes crucial evidence about the artist’s work in Paris and is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1802 – Item 2).

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