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Works (?) Thomas Girtin after Unknown Artist

Part of the Ruins of Roche Abbey

1792 - 1793

Primary Image: TG0211: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), after an Unknown Artist, Part of the Ruins of Roche Abbey, 1792–93, watercolour on paper, 22.8 × 29.7 cm, 9 × 11 ¾ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive, PA-F03340-0033 (CC BY-NC 4.0)

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after Unknown Artist
  • Part of the Ruins of Roche Abbey
1792 - 1793
Medium and Support
Watercolour on paper
22.8 × 29.7 cm, 9 × 11 ¾ in
Object Type
Copy from an Unknown Source; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
232 as 'Roche Abbey, Yorkshire' by Thomas Girtin; '1797–8'
Description Source(s)
Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive


Henry Charles Green; his sale, Sotheby's, 10 October 1962, lot 93 as by Thomas Girtin; Ernest Pitts; his sale, Sotheby’s, 21 November 1968, lot 171 as by Thomas Girtin; bought by M. R. Morgan, £140

About this Work

Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak dated this view of part of the ruins of Roche Abbey in Yorkshire to 1797–98, implying that it was produced from a sketch made on one of Girtin’s earliest northern tours (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.165). But, even though the work is known only from a black and white image taken when it was sold at auction in 1968, both the date and the attribution of the work to Girtin are open to question. As far as one can tell from the sketches made by the artist on his northern tours, Girtin does not seem to have been in the vicinity of Roche Abbey, near Maltby, in what is now South Yorkshire. Moreover, given that areas of the work, particularly in the darker foreground, are close in style to the watercolours that Girtin copied from his master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), during his time as an apprentice, it is possible that the drawing was made after another artist, perhaps even Dayes himself, and that it therefore dates from much earlier than 1797. Then again, other passages (such as the trees to the left of the ruin) are formulaic and unconvincing, and, given that the perspective of the building is also awry, there are real doubts about Girtin’s authorship. A final judgement on both the date and the authenticity of the watercolour must await its reappearance or the discovery of a high-quality colour image, however.

Roche Abbey, Yorkshire

The watercolour depicts the ruined north transept of Roche Abbey, which, together with a similar-sized fragment of the south transept, was the only part of the church to survive after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Cistercian abbey, known as Roche from the surrounding limestone cliffs, was dismantled for building materials, but in 1774 its owner employed Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83) to incorporate the ruins into the landscape of Sandbeck Park. Brown removed some of the remaining buildings and terraced and turfed the area, but left the twelfth-century transepts as a picturesque eye-catcher. The general tidying up of the ruins attracted the criticism of a writer on the picturesque, the Revd William Gilpin (1724–1804), who argued that ‘a ruin should be left in a state of wildness and negligence’ where ‘the reigning ideas are solitude, neglect, and desolation’ (Gilpin, 1789, vol.1, pp.23–24). This is certainly the effect shown here, so much so that one is inspired to question whether or not the image actually shows Roche. It is possible that the original sketch was made prior to Brown’s work, but the more likely option is that the landscape setting is imaginary. Shown from this angle, the ruin also appears as an insignificant fragment compared to the imposing three-storey structure of great architectural importance that dominates the views of Roche produced by Paul Sandby (c.1730–1809) in the 1770s (see figure 1). The idea that the work is more of a capriccio than a portrait of place also suggests the reason for the absence of the other transept. A view of the north transept from the north east, as this purports to be, would necessarily include a large part of the south transept too and the building should also appear more elevated. The fragment of the ruin undoubtedly depicts Roche, but in a partial and transformed manner that suggests that Gilpin’s strictures on Brown’s ‘improvement’ of the site informed the approach of the artist, whoever that might have been.

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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