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Works Thomas Girtin

Richmond Castle, from the River Swale


Primary Image: TG1688: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Richmond Castle, from the River Swale, 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 32.2 × 47.2 cm, 12 ⅝ × 18 ⅝ in. Leeds Art Gallery (503/23).

Photo courtesy of Leeds City Art Gallery (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Richmond Castle, from the River Swale
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
32.2 × 47.2 cm, 12 ⅝ × 18 ⅝ in

‘Girtin - 1800’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
390 as 'Richmond Castle'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and February 2020


Christopher Henry Thomas Hawkins (1820-1903); his posthumous sale, Christie's, 19 June 1905, lot 72 as 'Castle on a Hill', dated 1800; bought by 'Agnew', £56 14s; Thos. Agnew & Sons (stock no.4834); bought by Thomas W. Wright, 1 June 1906, £100; his sale, Christie's, 27 April 1923, lot 85 as 'Carisbrooke Castle, with peasants and animals'; bought by 'Palser', £54; J. Palser & Sons (stock no.18735); bought by the Gallery, 15 October 1923, £150

Exhibition History

Brussels, 1929, no.78; London, 1934b, no.764 as ’Richmond, Yorkshire’; Bucharest, 1935, no.138; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.23 as ’Richmond Castle’; London, 1960, no.64; Manchester, 1975, no.74; Edinburgh, 1982, no.28; British Council, 1982, no.29; London, 1993, no.145; Leeds, 1995, no.37; London, 2002, no.166


Davies, 1924, pl.51 as 'A Castle'; Binyon, 1933, p.108; Rothenstein, 1933, p.50; Mayne, 1949, p.101; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.70; Bury, 1960, p.14

About this Work

This sadly faded watercolour has in the past been said to represent the castles of Carisbrooke and Warkworth, but it clearly shows the view from the river Swale looking north east to the great Norman keep of Richmond Castle. Girtin visited Richmond in 1796, and, although it is possible that he returned on either of his other trips to Yorkshire in 1799 and 1800, he probably looked back to an earlier untraced sketch to make this signed and dated studio watercolour. The town was widely celebrated as one of the most picturesque in the north, and the situation of the castle, as its ‘principal feature’, attracted particular praise. As Edward Dayes (1763–1804) noted, the river and its ‘bold and rocky banks … agreeably diversified with verdure’, and, ‘crowned by the massy battlements of the Castle’, provided artists with a highly attractive subject (Dayes, Works, p.111). In this case, Girtin also included the contrasting sight of the picturesque Castle Mill and the weir on the river Swale, though not the bridge that is such a feature of his earlier view of the castle (TG1064). Returning to his Yorkshire sketches after four years, Girtin chose an altogether less conventional image of the site that uses a bold diagonal to link the rocky bank in the foreground and the mill to the town itself, all of which provides a brightly lit contrast to the forbidding bulk of the castle ruins above. The result is an image of grandeur appropriate to a ruined monument of military might, and where the extraordinarily clumsy and formless area to the left, where Girtin’s perspective has frankly broken down, is strangely in keeping with the overall effect.

Richmond Castle, from the River Swale

The latter, disturbing feature has no doubt been exacerbated by the watercolour’s extremely faded condition. It may be that the work was never brightly coloured, perhaps looking something like the earlier and relatively unaffected Lindisfarne Castle (TG1113), but it has nonetheless changed radically in appearance. The blue in the sky, together with a range of greys of the clouds, has disappeared completely, and the mass of verdure mentioned by Dayes has changed to various tones of ochre, whilst the town of Richmond, on the hill, has become indistinguishable from the rocks on which it was built. Three or so years earlier whilst still influenced by the teaching of Dayes, Girtin chose blue and yellow pigments that might stand over time, whilst here the probable use of the fugitive indigo and gamboge in thin washes, or mixed together, was enough to account for much of the watercolour’s deterioration (Dayes, Works, pp.298–311).1. Touches of pink and blue that have remained on the figures in the middle ground indicate that, whilst exposure to light may have been a factor in the fading, it was the change in Girtin’s palette in the years after the 1796 tour that was the more significant problem. It is ironic, therefore, that the shift to a more sombre, almost monochrome colour range is, arguably, in keeping with the subject of a ruined military stronghold on a rocky outcrop, since one of the key qualities of an awe-inspiring sublime scene is a dark and sombre colouring. Using relatively unfaded examples such as Lindisfarne Castle as a guide, it will no doubt soon be possible to subject watercolours such as Richmond Castle to a virtual restoration, and it will be interesting to see whether the qualities that we associate with its current appearance are retained and, in turn, observe how much our response to a work like this is affected by its condition.

A copy by an unknown artist that has a forged signature and the date 1802 is known only from a photograph in the Girtin Archive (14), where its status is not surprisingly questioned (see figure 1).

1796 - 1797

Richmond Castle and Bridge, from the River Swale


1796 - 1797

Lindisfarne Castle


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Dayes’ well-informed text on the science of pigments was published posthumously in 1805 in The Works of the Late Edward Dayes and is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1805 – Item 2).

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