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Works Thomas Girtin

Self-Portrait of the Artist at Work

1797 - 1798

Primary Image: TG1533: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Self-Portrait of the Artist at Work, 1797–98, graphite on laid paper, 26.4 × 20.7 cm, 10 ⅜ × 8 ⅛ in. British Museum, London (1889,0603.255).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Self-Portrait of the Artist at Work
1797 - 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite on laid paper
26.4 × 20.7 cm, 10 ⅜ × 8 ⅛ in

‘Tho. Girtin’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Figure Studies

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2008 and 2018


Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911); then by a settlement to his sister, Julia Hog Cooper (née Girtin) (1839–1904) (not noted in her sale at Davis, Castleton, Sherborne, 2 December 1884); Robert Jackson (dealer, active 1876–1898); bought from him by the Museum, 1889

Exhibition History

Edinburgh, 2008, no.60 as ’c.1795–7’


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.1 as 'Portrait of the Artist'; Binyon, 1900, pl.1; Ritchie, 1935, pl.49; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.219 as 'c.1800'; Smith, 2002b, p.95 as 'c.1799'

About this Work

This intriguing image shows Girtin seated in the studio, working on one of his architectural views placed on an easel. The profile of Girtin’s head is comparable with the pencil drawing that George Dance (1741–1825) produced of the artist, which is dated 28 August 1798 (TG1933). There is little doubt that we are therefore looking at a self-portrait and that it was executed at roughly the same date, though if the slightly more youthful features are a guide, it may be from a little earlier. The fact that Girtin shows himself with a palette in his left hand and working on a large-scale watercolour alerts us to the contrivance involved in the process of producing this pencil drawing. An artist sketching his own features face on simply requires a small sheet of paper, a piece of graphite and a mirror; however, if a landscape artist were not to appear in the guise of a portrait painter, something more complex was required. To execute what is in effect a self-portrait of the artist at work in a different medium would require the careful arrangement of two mirrors, one to the right of the easel and the other placed behind Girtin’s right shoulder, so that the process of sketching a profile in graphite and painting a landscape in watercolours could be elided into an image of the artist in his natural milieu – and one, furthermore, that was not in reverse.

As Kim Sloan has wisely noted, there is something very attractive about the pose Girtin adopts, redolent of ‘professional ease’, a man ‘happily and confidently focused on the job in hand’, and it is surely significant, as Sloan adds, that the artist is painting ‘an exhibition-sized architectural watercolour’ (Lloyd and Sloan, 2008, p.107). There is not enough detail to precisely identify the subject Girtin is working on, but in terms of scale it appears to match the larger size of commission that he executed after his 1796 tour to the north east and the Scottish Borders – that is, on paper that measured roughly 22 ½ × 18 in (c.57 × 46 cm) – and one of these, The South Side of York Minster (TG1050), actually has a similar arrangement of architectural elements to the building outlined here. On the one hand, this would appear simply to be a matter of the artist expressing a certain amount of professional pride in his growing success, and it is easy to imagine that he took time out from working on a commission, perhaps destined for the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, as the York view may have been. But on the other, as Sloan again notes, the informality of the scene and the rapidly executed nature of the sketch suggest that ‘it was done not with publication or any other audience in mind’, and the work is therefore essentially a private image about personal identity. It was not the case, however, that Girtin’s studio was a site of personal refuge; as a number of witnesses testify, ‘he was always accessible’, happy to welcome fellow artists, professional and amateur, and share with them the secrets of his practice as a watercolourist (Pyne, 1823b, p.83). This, then, is the view by which a generation of watercolourists would have known Girtin, his attention equally directed to his work and an audience of fellow practitioners.

The first recorded owner of the self-portrait was the artist’s son, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74). Though the majority of the works he owned by his father were purchased, this may have been one of a handful that he inherited either through his mother, Mary Ann Girtin (1781–1843), or his grandfather, Phineas Borrett (1756–1843), who died in the same year. The presence of a signature commonly indicates that Girtin sold a drawing to a collector, but in this case perhaps the inscription was more a matter of naming the subject. It may be that the self-portrait remained in the studio where it was produced and that it was retained by the artist’s family after his death for sentimental reasons.


Profile Portrait of Thomas Girtin


1796 - 1797

The South Side of York Minster, Showing the Transept and the Western Towers


by Greg Smith

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