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Works Thomas Girtin



Primary Image: TG1702: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Sandsend, 1802, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, on a card mount, 31.8 × 53 cm, 12 ½ × 20 ⅞ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.365).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Sandsend
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper, on a card mount
31.8 × 53 cm, 12 ½ × 20 ⅞ in

‘Girtin-1802’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; The Village; Yorkshire View

Sandsend (TG1609)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


William Wells of Redleaf (1768–1847); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 22 January 1857, lot 290 as 'A village in the North of England, with old wooden bridge, over a river - in colours. Signed and dated, 1802', £12 1s 6d; Edward Cohen (1817-86) (lent to London, 1875); then by bequest to his niece, Isabella Oswald (1838–1905); her posthumous sale, Robins & Hine, 30 March 1905, lot 379; bought by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960), 18 gns (plus part of a payment of £50 to 'Palser' for 'standing aside'); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.86 as ’Landscape with Old Wooden Bridge’; London, 1906, no.76; London, 1912, no.44 as ’Landscape with the wooden bridge’; Cambridge, 1920, no.41 as ’Sandsend, near Whitby’; Leeds, 1937, no.27; Paris, 1938, no.37; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.62; Sheffield, 1953, no.57; London, 1962a, no.155; New Haven, 1982, VI.19; New Haven, 1986a, no.89; Harewood, 1999, no.38; London, 2002, no.136


Gibson, 1916, p.220; Davies, 1924, pl.94; Hardie, 1934, pl.4; Hardie, 1938–39, p.10; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.85

About this Work

This fine dated watercolour from 1802 depicts the village of Sandsend, north of Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast, with the wooden bridge that crossed the East Row Beck prominent. The work is based on a sketch in the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1609) that is one of four that survive from Girtin’s stay with his patron Henry Phipps, 1st Earl of Mulgrave (1755–1831), at nearby Mulgrave Castle (the others being TG1625, TG1626 and TG1628). The visit probably took place in 1800, though it was not until the last year of his life that Girtin produced this work, one of only four dated watercolours painted in the six months following his return from France. The watercolour was not produced on commission for Mulgrave, however, as new evidence has emerged that suggests that its first owner, William Wells (1768–1847) of Redleaf in Kent, probably acquired it in the immediate aftermath of Girtin’s death. The recent discovery of the accounts of the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), includes the record of a receipt from ‘Mr Wells’ for eight guineas dated 13 December 1802 – that is, a few weeks after the artist’s death (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804).1 Wells’ collection included another late work on the same scale, the well-known Morpeth Bridge (TG1709), but the sum of eight guineas could equally relate to this view of Sandsend, which would therefore have been one of the works appropriated by John Girtin from the artist’s studio as a way of settling the substantial loans he had extended to his brother during his life (Smith, 2017–18, pp.35–36). Whichever was the case, it is unlikely that Wells would have had any idea of the location the drawing depicted, as it was not a commission. It was later sold from his collection as ‘A village in the North of England, with old wooden bridge, over a river’, and I suspect, therefore, that it was bought simply as an example of the artist’s skills as a landscape watercolourist (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 22 January 1857, lot 290). As David Hill has noted, this was another case of Girtin’s ‘less-than-obvious selection’ of subjects, with the artist literally turning his back on the sea and the nearby spectacular cliff scenery, choosing instead something so ‘modest and obscure’ that it is not surprising that Wells appears not to have known that he had bought a coastal scene and that Sandsend is a fishing village (Hill, 1999, p.60).

There is something very attractive about an unconventional artist who trusts to his skills without the fallback of a significant subject, whether topographical or architectural, but this is meaningless unless sympathetic customers might be attracted. However, the success enjoyed by the composition of the other work bought by Wells, Morpeth Bridge, which contains the same basic ingredients as Sandsend (a picturesque assemblage of buildings, an ancient bridge, a busy sky and a flat surface of water to hold their reflections), suggest that this was actually all that was needed to constitute an effective vehicle for the demonstration of the artist’s skill. If this was the case, it was not the fact that the subject was commonplace or typical that governed its choice, so much that anywhere with the right combination of elements might equally suffice. As the dramatist Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809) noted when he and Girtin were studying the countryside around Paris, the village of Montmorency may indeed command a fine prospect ‘but, to speak in his language, the objects did not form masses: they were scattered, and water was wanting; to him an almost insuperable defect’. The individual parts of the view, Girtin is reported to have said, ‘might each … have been a study for an artist: but they did not correspond with river, building, or height, so as to form a picture’ (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, p.498).2

Although the watercolour has suffered a little from fading and has acquired a too-warm tonality as a result, it is nowhere near as badly affected as the bulk of the works produced in Girtin’s last years, where his choice of fugitive blue and yellow pigments, in particular, has wreaked havoc with their appearance. All four of the watercolours dated 1802 (see also TG1755, TG1637 and TG1891) together with the view of Morpeth (TG1709), which was almost certainly painted in the artist’s final year, have survived in reasonable condition, and I wonder whether the artist’s choice of less fugitive pigments reflects a rethink by him. More specifically, could this be related to the end of his working relationship with Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), for whom he had produced a large body of works for disposal on the open market around 1800–1801? It is not unreasonable to think that the bulk production of watercolours for sale on a speculative basis might have encouraged Girtin to ignore the sound advice of his master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), to ‘sacrifice brilliancy for permanency’ (Dayes, Works, p.300).

(?) 1800



(?) 1800

The Ruins of Old Mulgrave Castle


(?) 1800

Mulgrave Park and Castle, from near Epsyke Farm


(?) 1800

A Distant View of Whitby


(?) 1802

Morpeth Bridge






Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening



La Rue Saint-Denis, Paris: A Scene for Thomas Dibdin’s Pantomime ‘Harlequin’s Habeas’


(?) 1802

Morpeth Bridge


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Details are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1804 – Item 1).
  2. 2 Holcroft’s unique eye-witness account of Girtin at work during the excursions they undertook in and around Paris in the early spring of 1802, published in the second volume of Travels from Hamburg, through Westphalia, Holland, and the Netherlands, to Paris, is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1802 – Item 1).

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