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Works Thomas Girtin

Plumpton Rocks, near Knaresborough

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1553: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Plumpton Rocks, near Knaresborough, 1800–01, graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper, 66 × 100.7 cm, 26 × 39 ⅝ in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P.129-1920).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Plumpton Rocks, near Knaresborough
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and scratching out on laid paper
66 × 100.7 cm, 26 × 39 ⅝ in
Object Type
Commissioned from Thomas Girtin; Large Framed Work; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Lake Scenery; The Landscape Park; Yorkshire View

Plumpton Rocks, near Knaresborough (TG1552)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
271 as 'Plompton Rocks. Near Knaresborough'; 'Possibly done in collaboration with another artist of the Monro School'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Edward Lascelles (1764–1814); then by descent to Henry Lascelles, 4th Earl of Harewood (1824–92); his sale, Christie’s, 1 May 1858, lot 28 as 'A romantick lake scene, with rocky banks'; bought by 'Palser', £8 15s; J. Palser & Sons; Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); sold to Walker's Galleries, London, 1918; Sotheby’s, 15 December 1920, lot 196 as 'Lake in Harewood Park'; P. J. Moore; bought by the Museum, 1920

Exhibition History

Walker’s Galleries, 1918, no.46, 100 gns


Davies, 1924, p.20 as 'Lake at Harewood' with John Laporte; V&A, 1924, p.67; V&A, 1927, p.233 as 'Lake in Harewood Park, Yorkshire'; Hardie, 1934, p.5; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.32, pp.64–65; Lambourne and Hamilton, 1980, p.151; Hackney, 1990, p.46; Smith, 2002b, p.73

About this Work

This view of Plumpton Rocks, near Knaresborough, was for a long time known as ‘Lake in Harewood Park’. This no doubt stemmed from the fact that it formed part of a group of four monumental watercolours, each on paper, measuring roughly 25 ¾ × 38 ½  in (62.7 × 97.8 cm), that were commissioned for the combined price of eighty guineas by Edward Lascelles (1764–1814), the eldest son of the owner of Harewood. The group also includes two views of the nearby great mansion, seen from the south east and south west respectively (TG1548 and TG1547), together with another local scene, A Distant View of Knaresbough Castle (TG1669). In fact, this watercolour shows the artificial lake that was created by John Carr (1723–1807) for Daniel Lascelles (1714–84) as part of the grounds of Plompton Park (spelt differently), which is about ten kilometres to the north east of Harewood. In the same letter that records the cost of the commission (dated 27 June 1801), Lascelles discussed arrangements for framing the group, so that, uniquely, we can be sure that these watercolours were designed from the outset to be displayed on the wall (Roget, 1891, vol.1, p.120). Conservation reports on the other watercolours have revealed how Girtin mounted the paper onto a secondary support that was then attached to a stretcher, just like an oil painting, and traces of colour around the edges show that the artist finished the works in that state, before they were finally close-framed and glazed to protect the surface, and there is no reason to doubt that this was the procedure he followed here too (Hill, 1995, p.62). Unfortunately, the original frame seems to have been lost when the work left the Harewood collection following a sale in 1858 that was said to have been prompted by significant fading that had already affected the appearance of Girtin’s watercolours (Hill, 1995, pp.30 and 55; Exhibitions: Christie’s, 1 May 1858). The spectacular loss of colour in the sky and the darkening of the vegetation were no doubt the result of the work having been on continuous display for fifty years, and this was almost certainly in Lascelles’ home in Hanover Square, London. An inventory dating from around 1814, combined with Lascelles’ letter to Girtin, makes it clear that the four works were designed specifically for the London townhouse, though the group was actually split up and shown in different rooms (Hill, 1995, pp.57–8). 

Plumpton Rocks

Lascelles clearly wished for more than simple records of favourite Yorkshire scenes for a London audience, however, and there is compelling evidence that the commission was a further stage in his advocacy of Girtin’s skills over those of his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). According to the diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821), writing in early 1799, ‘Mr. Lascelles as well as Lady Sutherland are disposed to set up Girtin against Turner – who they say effects his purpose by industry – the former more genius – Turner finishes too much’ (Farington, Diary, 9 February 1799). Lascelles, it seems, turned this preference into action, commissioning Girtin to paint views of Harewood that Turner had already realised for him in 1798: the mansion across the park from the south east (see TG1548 and TG1548 figure 1) and the south west (see TG1547 and TG1547 figure 1). The commission to depict Plumpton Rocks went a stage further, however, as Turner’s two oil paintings of the lake and its picturesque surrounds were actually painted for Edward Lascelles’ father, the 1st Earl of Harewood (1740–1820), and these are still displayed in the Salon at Harewood (see figure 1). The painting of familial property by the patron’s protégé was about more than simply favouring one artist over another around the issue of finish; I would suggest that it amounts to an oedipal challenge to the father. Comparisons between the two artists’ images are complicated by the different media employed and by the poor condition of the Girtin watercolour, but it is possible that at least some of the added drama and the more immersive, even claustrophobic effect of Girtin’s work might be the product of the provocative challenge laid down by a son who never actually got to inherit the family’s properties.1 And, at the risk of stretching the conceit to breaking point, I cannot help note that Girtin himself turned to his own artistic ‘father figure’, Richard Wilson (1713/14–82), for an alternative to Turner’s approach; Wilson’s Solitude (see TG1270 figure 1) provides the model for the view of Plumpton Rocks, and Girtin relied on Wilson’s works in other cases too. 

The poor condition of the large compositions produced for Lascelles caused particular problems for Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, who detected signs of immaturity in their production, leading them to suggest that the watercolours were actually begun in 1798 and reworked in 1801 at the behest of the patron. In this case Thomas Girtin was so unhappy with the work’s quality that he suggested it was the product of a collaboration with an ‘artist of the Monro school’, and he went on to suggest that Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) himself ‘exerted an artistic influence in his own right’. This manifested itself, he argued, in Girtin’s ‘manner of rendering foliage by means of bold, relentless hatching, with long, thin strokes of the brush, almost mechanical in their monotonous uniformity’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.64). This was presumably a hard-earned lesson, because what the artist’s descendant does not mention in his catalogue is that he actually owned the work before quickly discarding it (Girtin Archive, 25). In fact, there is no evidence that Girtin was ever directly influenced by the work of Monro, a barely competent amateur, not least in the most prestigious commission he ever received, and the feature of the prominent hatching would never have been evident if the work had not faded so badly. It seems that the artist used such bold hatching only when working on a large scale to help articulate depth within areas of foliage. Because this only becomes apparent when the washes of colour added on top have been lost, it has no significance either for dating Girtin’s works or for questioning their attribution.

(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South East


(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South West



A Distant View of Knaresborough, from the South East


(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South East


(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South West


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 This is true too of the two surviving sketches of the rocks that Turner made during his 1797 northern tour (Tate, Turner Bequest, LI Y and CXCVII L).

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