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Works Thomas Girtin

Seaton Sluice

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1088: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Seaton Sluice, 1796–97, graphite and watercolour on paper, on an original washline mount, 10.5 × 16.5 cm, 4 ⅛ × 6 ½ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Seaton Sluice
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on paper, on an original washline mount
10.5 × 16.5 cm, 4 ⅛ × 6 ½ in

‘On the coast of / Northumberland / T. Girtin’ on an old label; ‘Mr Girtin / St Martin’s Le Gray'

Object Type
Colour Sketch: Studio Work
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; Durham and Northumberland

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2004 and 2005


Sotheby’s, 26 March 2004, lot 104, unsold; Sotheby’s, 22 March 2005, lot 88, £7,200

About this Work

This small watercolour of the Northumberland coast at Seaton Sluice is based on a pencil sketch that was almost certainly made in 1796 on Girtin’s first independent sketching tour (TG1087). Neither the sketch nor the small watercolour that Girtin made from it is dated, but the proximity of Seaton Sluice to a series of other subjects that must have been sketched in 1796, such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne (TG1080) and Lindisfarne Priory (TG1105), confirms this tour as the origin for the composition. Indeed, such is the obscurity of the subject that it is unlikely that the artist would have visited were it not for the fact that the location lay on the route that he must have taken between the more obviously picturesque sites of Tynemouth (TG1086) and Bothal Castle (TG1089). Such is the unconventional nature of Girtin’s choice of subject that it requires some explanation, since what we are looking at is actually an artificial channel with dock gates prominent above. Behind, the ship masts show the position of the harbour, which was first equipped with a sluice by Sir Ralph Delaval (1622–91) in the seventeenth century and around which glassworks, a brewery, brickworks and a lime kiln gathered. However, as a result of its continuing problems with silting, Sir John Hussey Delaval (1728–1808) undertook further improvements, completed in 1764, which saw the cutting of a deep channel through the rock, with large sluice gates added to control the water level. Although widely acclaimed as a major feat of engineering, this was nonetheless an unlikely subject for a commission, unless perhaps the two names recorded on the back of the sketch, a ‘Hartley’ and a ‘Mrs Park’, had a personal interest in the business enterprise and consequently ordered watercolours from the artist.

When the view of Seaton Sluice first appeared on the art market in 2004, it was suggested that it was sketched on the spot during the 1796 tour, and indeed the work’s small scale and summary style make that an obvious conclusion. However, I have no doubt that it was actually fabricated in the studio on Girtin’s return from the north in order to meet the market for a small sketch-like commodity suited to the portfolios of his earliest patrons and collectors. The crucial comparison here is with the strikingly similar view of Pegwell Bay (TG0372), which is dated 1796 but which could not have been coloured on the spot as Girtin did not travel to the Kent coast in that year, or in all probability ever. The treatment of the sky and the reflections in the water in both works may suggest speedy production, but the uniform way that the watercolours are finished, combined with the manner in which the figures and the buildings have been carefully placed within the composition, suggests the deliberation associated with a studio work. The dated view of Pegwell Bay therefore helps us to identify a significant group of small watercolours, derived from sketches produced in the field in 1796, that because of their evidently hasty production purport to have been coloured on the spot. Works such as this view of Seaton Sluice, together with the one of nearby Bothal Castle, therefore have a claim to being the first examples of a new kind of commodity, what I have termed the colour sketch–studio work, which Girtin pioneered around 1796–97. The early date of this work is confirmed by the inscription on the back of the drawing, which gives the artist’s address as St Martin’s-le-Grand, a place from which he had moved by May 1797 at the latest.

(?) 1796

Seaton Sluice


(?) 1796



(?) 1796

Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church


1797 - 1798

Tynemouth Priory, from the Coast


1796 - 1797

Bothal Castle, from the River Wansbeck



Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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