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Works (?) John Opie

Portrait Drawing of Thomas Girtin

1799 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1932: John Opie (1761–1807), Portrait Drawing of Thomas Girtin, black, white and red chalk on wove paper, 23.1 × 18.3 cm, 9 ⅛ × 7 ¼ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

(?) John Opie (1761-1807)
  • Portrait Drawing of Thomas Girtin
1799 - 1801
Medium and Support
Black, white and red chalk on wove paper
23.1 × 18.3 cm, 9 ⅛ × 7 ¼ in

'J. Opie', lower right, by (?) John Opie; 'J. Opie. R. A. Thomas Gir [tin]... / This is a rare and unique portrait of [the] celebrated water colour artist. The / prerunner of the English School of water / colour artists. The only man whom the / Great Turner is said to have feared. / Girtin was born 1775 & died 1802. / Opie was born 1761 & died 1807. / [T]his drawing must have done about / 1800 / It is a brilliant piece of work of / [?] precision and an excellent ...' on a label attached to the frame, by an unknown hand

Object Type
Work on paper
Subject Terms
Portrait of Thomas Girtin

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in July 2021


Christie's, 26 May 1919, lot 43; bought by ‘Martin’, £14 14s; Francis Wellesley; his sale, Sotheby's, 27 June 1922, lot 113 as ‘Thomas Girtin, the Painter, half-length, looking to the left. Varnished water-colour’; ... Thos. Agnew & Sons (stock no.35263); Cyril and Shirley Fry; their posthumous sale, Sotheby's, 8 July 2021, lot 187, £3,024

Exhibition History

Sudbury, 1994, no.46

About this Work

This little-known portrait drawing in black, red and white chalk appeared at auction in 2021 from the collection of Cyril and Shirley Fry; although there are records of earlier sales, this was the first time an image of the work had entered the public domain. The drawing is neither mentioned by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and Derek Loshak in The Art of Thomas Girtin (Girtin and Loshak, 1954), nor does there appear to be any reference to it in the Girtin Archive. However, whether this was because the family did not come across the work or had doubts about it – either concerning the identity of the sitter or the author of the image – is not clear. To deal with the less contentious question of the identity of the sitter first, there are a number of pieces of evidence that suggest that Girtin, as the extensive later inscription on the back of the drawing attests, was indeed the subject of the chalk drawing. In particular, there is the close facial resemblance with the subject of the miniature by Henry Edridge (1768–1821) (TG1928) – including the distinctive form of the nose, the prominent eyebrows and the dimple in the chin – which likewise includes no indication that the subject was an artist. Only the hair, which lacks the tight curls seen in the miniature and oil paintings by John Opie (1761–1807) (TG1929), might suggest otherwise, in which case it is just possible that we are looking at a portrait of the artist’s slightly older brother, John Girtin (1773–1821). To that end, we only have a small profile study of ‘Girtins brother’ by John Varley (1778–1842) (Christie’s, 6 December 2012, lot 206), which does not give much information.1 However, though the form of the hair in Varley’s image is closer to that seen in the study by Opie, on balance I think the identification of the subject as Thomas is probably sound.

The portrait has always been attributed to Opie. Given that it appears to be signed and that he was the author of as many as five oil paintings of Girtin in two formats (for example, TG1924 and TG1927), all based on a study presumably made from life as the artist painted in his studio (TG1930), that is very understandable. However, despite extensive searches, I have not been able to find any evidence that Opie used coloured chalks in the sophisticated manner seen here, nor indeed that he ever produced finished portrait drawings of this type. I also cannot see any links between this drawing and Opie’s oil paintings of Girtin, which all show him at work and which conform closely to an intimate portrait format that he developed for fellow artists and writers, including his and Girtin’s mutual associate and friend Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809) (see TG1930 figure 1). My counter-thought is that the stippling and hatching in the face suggest that what we are looking at is a preparatory drawing for a posthumous print that was never published and that perhaps, like the Edridge miniature (to which it is much closer in sprit), it was executed from memory. There were a number of draughtsmen amongst Girtin’s circle who might have had the specialist skills to realise such a sensitive portrayal in coloured chalks, not least John Raphael Smith (1752–1812). Girtin represented Smith in one of his own rare figure studies (TG1600), and, as the older artist’s self-portrait illustrates (see TG1600 figure 1), his economical use of coloured chalks was the perfect preparation for an engraving using the stipple technique that Edward Scriven (1775–1841) employed in his reproduction of Opie’s oil portrait of Girtin (see print after TG1931). The similarities between the Girtin portrait and Smith’s drawings are not so close as to posit a new attribution, not least because the two ‘Smith’ portrait drawings in the British Museum collection that are closest to this work, including a study of the actress Mary Robinson (1756/8–1800), are now attributed to John Hoppner (1758–1810) (1868,0328.342). Given that Hoppner knew Girtin well and was a subscriber to his Paris prints, perhaps he too should be added to the list of candidates as the author of this drawing.

(?) 1796

Portrait Miniature of Thomas Girtin


1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin


1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin


1800 - 1805

Portrait Head of Thomas Girtin


1800 - 1801

Sketch of Thomas Girtin’s Head


1798 - 1799

John Raphael Smith: ‘Waiting for the Mail Coach’


1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 The profile portrait of John Girtin is illustrated in Agnew’s, 2000, no.44.

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