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Works Thomas Girtin

Shipping on the River Medway


Primary Image: TG1754: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Shipping on the River Medway, 1801, graphite and watercolour on paper, 25.4 × 64.8 cm, 10 × 25 ½ in. Museum of New Zealand, Wellington (1955-0013-3).

Photo courtesy of Museum of New Zealand, Wellington (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Shipping on the River Medway
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on paper
25.4 × 64.8 cm, 10 × 25 ½ in

‘Girtin 1801’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; Dover and Kent; Panoramic Format

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
424 as 'Devonport'
Description Source(s)
Museum Website


E. C. Daintry; bought by the Fine Art Society, London, 1946; Mark Hanan, New Zealand; bought by the Museum, 1955


Morris, 1990, p.59; Museum Website as 'The docks, Plymouth'

About this Work

This distressingly faded panoramic view of shipping has hitherto been titled ‘Devonport’, and Susan Morris has suggested that it was the outcome of a second West Country trip that she thought Girtin made in 1800 or 1801 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.192; Morris, 1990, p.59). If this is the case, the work would make a fine pair with Plymouth (TG1753), which is similarly dated 1801 and shares the same format and dimensions. However, it seems that earlier writers either were unaware of the sketch on which this studio watercolour appears to be based (TG1425) or discounted the significance of the inscription on it, which reads ‘On the Medway’. Neither the sketch, which may actually have been copied from the work of another artist, nor this studio watercolour includes enough topographical detail to establish the location of the scene beyond doubt, but equally there is no reason to question the accuracy of the inscription, which appears to be in Girtin’s hand. Indeed, the presence in the middle ground of what seem to be hulks, the decommissioned ships that were used at the time as prisons, suggests that we are looking at a scene near Chatham. This is supported by a view of the Medway port attributed to the amateur Sir George Bulteel Fisher (1764–1834) (see TG1425 figure 1), which includes the same combination of hulks, larger moored vessels and wooden buildings on the shore, together with a similar long, low line of distant hills.

The very poor condition of this watercolour is sadly far from untypical of Girtin’s late watercolours, though few examples combine the same degree of fading with a simple composition that does nothing to compensate for the loss of colour. The poor condition of many of the artist’s watercolours is often down to their subsequent display at high light levels, but in this case we can be sure that it was the result of Girtin’s choice of materials. Of the fifteen pigments Girtin is recorded as having used by William Henry Pyne (1770–1843), at least four are very fugitive: a blue, indigo; two yellows, gamboge and brown pink; and a purple, brown lake (Pyne, 1823a, p.67).1 In this case, the probable use of those pigments in combination, and individually as thin washes, is enough to account for the loss of the blues and greys in the sky, the reflections in the water, the reds in the building materials, and all of the greens in the vegetation, and only the earth colour used in the middle ground has been left relatively unaffected.




1799 - 1800

A View on the River Medway with a Boatyard, Beached Vessels and Hulks


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Pyne's ‘Rise and Progress of Painting in Water Colours’ includes a wealth of detail on Girtin’s working practice, much of it the result of watching the artist. It is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1823 – Item 1).

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