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Works Thomas Girtin

Rievaulx Abbey

(?) 1798

Primary Image: TG1056: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Rievaulx Abbey, (?) 1798, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 41.9 × 55.3 cm, 16 ½ × 21 ¾ in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (FA.499).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Rievaulx Abbey
(?) 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
41.9 × 55.3 cm, 16 ½ × 21 ¾ in

‘Girtin’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Exhibition Watercolour; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
250 as '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018


Edward Hawke Locker (1777–1849) (lent to SPWC, 1823); his sale, Christie’s, 15 June 1844, lot 471; bought by 'F. White'; Charles Robert Leslie (1794–1859); his posthumous sale, Foster’s, 27 April 1860, lot 404; bought by the Museum, 1860

Exhibition History

(?) Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.493 or no.650 as ’Rivaux Abbey’ or ’River’s Abbey, Yorkshire’ (Whitehall Evening Post, 31 May – 2 June 1798); SPWC, 1823, no.122 as ’Rivaux Abbey’; Manchester, 1975, no.35; London, 1994, no.35; London, 2002, no.43; London, 2014, no.65


Redgrave and Redgrave, 1866, vol.1, p.393, p.395; Redgrave, 1877, p.127; Finberg, 1905, p.53, p.56; Finberg and Taylor, 1917–18, p.14; Rich, 1918, p.190; Davies, 1924, pl.38; V&A, 1927, p.230; Mayne, 1949, pp.46–48, p.73, p.98; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.65; Lambourne and Hamilton, 1980, p.150; Flett, 1981, pp.141–42; Parkinson, 1998, pp.52–53; Smith, 2002a, p.217; Hill, 2005, p.29; Roach, 2012, p.413; Solkin, 2015, pp.262–63; Hallett and Turner, 2018, pp.64–65

About this Work

This depiction by Girtin of the north transept and part of the nave of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire was in all likelihood based on a lost sketch that was taken from a low viewpoint that David Hill has identified as ‘the steps leading up to the doorway from the infirmary cloister’ (Hill, 2005, p.29). The resulting watercolour, worked on a scale hitherto unprecedented in Girtin’s studio works, amply bears out the judgement of Edward Dayes (1763–1804) that the ruin’s situation amongst ‘rich surrounding scenery’ offered artists a series of ‘highly picturesque’ views. The combination of ‘the fine state of its remains, enriched by weather tints and ivy, its retired situation, and boldly rising grounds covered with wood’, he suggested, meant that Rievaulx had a distinctive character that compared favourably to the too-tidy surroundings of nearby Fountains Abbey (TG1508b) (Dayes, Works, p.148). Girtin’s adoption of a low and close viewpoint has the double effect of emphasising the monumentality of the ruin whilst compressing the space so that the building appears to be hemmed in by trees and bushes. The play of brilliant sunlight on the masonry means that, despite the ruins being almost engulfed, the mood is neither sombre nor melancholic, in keeping with the notion of the Revd William Gilpin (1724–1804) that a ‘chearful solitude’ was most suited to moral contemplation, and it this that the lone figure to the right appears to be engaged in (Gilpin, 1786, vol.2, p.176).

Rievaulx Abbey

This watercolour is of particular interest because it is almost certainly one of the two views of ‘Rivaux Abbey’ or ‘River’s Abbey, Yorkshire’ exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798, where it was the subject of a stinging critique for its ‘extreme slovenliness … neglect and carelessness’. The point, as an anonymous writer in the Whitehall Evening Post continued, was that ‘Mr. Girtin can produce better works if he pleases’, but, instead, the work shows clear signs of being ‘done in a hurry’. The work may be ‘drawn with considerable spirit and ability’, the author concluded, but it ‘wants that architectural truth which such scenes indispensibly require’ (Whitehall Evening Post, 31 May – 2 June 1798). However, other more positive reviews and Girtin’s popularity with patrons indicate that many were prepared to make allowances for the artist’s increasing disregard for ‘architectural truth’, which in this case sees whole areas of the ruin slip in and out of focus. Thus, as David Solkin has noted, the definition of the ruins’ features perversely becomes ‘most summary’ in the centre of the composition, where the effect that intense sunshine has in dissolving form is given priority. For sympathetic patrons such as Edward Hawke Locker (1777–1849), who appears to have commissioned the work as well as producing a copy of it (see figure 1), the fact that the view contains more of what Solkin terms the ‘pictorial signs of the artist’s identity’ than the unambiguous architectural information characteristic of the standard topographical view was crucial to his support (Solkin, 2015, pp.262–63). Indeed, the appearance of a commissioned watercolour at the Academy’s exhibition was as much a proof of the patron’s elevated taste as it was evidence of the artist’s standing.

This is certainly one conclusion to be drawn from the fact that Locker lent his watercolours of Rievaulx Abbey and Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (TG1075) to the pioneering exhibition of 'Drawings by British Artists' organised by the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1823 (Exhibitions: SPWC, 1823). Sometime in the 1830s Locker also created a pair of hand-held screens in the form of outline keys showing the position of the framed works hanging in what are listed as the 'DINING ROOM' and the 'DRAWING ROOM' of his quarters at Greenwich Hospital (see TG0306 figure 2). A work identified as 'Rievaux Abbey – Yorks' occupies a prominent position on the river side in the drawing room flanked by a pair by Paul Sandby (c.1730–1809) and adjacent to a watercolour listed as 'Kings College Cambridge' by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) (Roach, 2012, p.413).1 Many of the watercolours are shown in quite ornate frames and Locker’s wall plans provide significant evidence of the way in which Girtin’s works were commonly presented as part of a carefully organised decorative display of the modern school of British landscape watercolours with a strong emphasis on the nation’s medieval heritage.

The sketch on which this work is based has not been traced, and it is not known whether it was produced on Girtin’s first tour to the northern counties, in 1796, or not. Rievaulx, as Hill has noted, was out of the way of Girtin’s conjectured route in 1796, and it may be that the artist returned to Yorkshire in 1797 to sketch a different set of subjects. If this was the case, it is possible that the success of Girtin’s Yorkshire views at the 1797 exhibition led to a commission for a view of Rievaulx, though this still might have been made from an earlier sketch.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a laid cartridge paper by an unknown Dutch maker, worked on the wireside, where the surface is impressed with the lines of the mould used in its manufacture (Smith, 2002b, p.69; Bower, Report). The allowance made by a sympathetic patron for Girtin’s ‘slovenliness … neglect and carelessness’ would have had to extend to his use of a utilitarian paper, which clearly displays unsightly marks in the centre. These were formed by differential shrinkage during the drying phase of its manufacture, but this could have easily been omitted by Girtin had he taken greater care when cutting his support from the larger sheet of paper supplied by the stationer.

1798 - 1799

An Interior View of Fountains Abbey: The East Window from the Presbytery


1796 - 1797

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


1795 - 1796

The Gateway of Great Malvern Priory


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Turner’s Cambridge view appeared at the same sale of works from Locker’s collection as the three works he owned by Girtin, together with three more by Turner (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 15 June 1844). The Turner watercolour, probably shown at the Royal Academy in 1795, has not been traced.

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