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Works Thomas Girtin

Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol

(?) 1797

Primary Image: TG1289: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol, (?) 1797, graphite on paper, 18 × 19 cm, 7 ⅛ × 7 ½ in. Harewood House (HHTP:2001.2.26).

Photo courtesy of The Earl and Countess of Harewood and Harewood House Trust (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol
(?) 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite on paper
18 × 19 cm, 7 ⅛ × 7 ½ in

‘Dover Harbour’ on an old mount

Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Docks and Canals; Somerset and Bristol

Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol (TG1290)
Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Sotheby's, 8 February 1967, lot 245 as 'Shipping at Dover'; bought by Dr C. F. Cosin, £8; Sotheby’s, 10 July 1997, lot 102 as 'Study of Shipping at Low Tide in Dover Harbour', £828

Exhibition History

Harewood, 1999, no.10 as ’Ships in Harbour’, c.1798

About this Work

This view of ships in a harbour, together with the watercolour that Girtin derived from it (TG1290), has been described as depicting a view of Dover. David Hill, talking about the watercolour, which like the sketch is in the collection at Harewood House in Yorkshire, thus described it as an ‘early work’ and suggested a link with the copies of shipping in Dover harbour that Girtin made for Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) (Hill, 1995, p.34). Writing a little later, however, following the reappearance of this sketch at auction, Hill changed its title to Ships in a Harbour, presumably on the basis that the array of ocean-going vessels depicted here is inconsistent with the smaller groups of more modest ships typically shown in the Monro School drawings of Dover (such as TG0803) (Hill, 1999, p.20). I am sure that is correct, but I would like to go a stage further and propose that the drawing actually shows the harbour at Bristol, which Girtin depicted in a series of pencil drawings on the return leg of his West Country tour in 1797 (particularly significant works amongst these are the two views of St Mary Redcliffe, TG1286 and TG1287). The way that the artist picks out the detail of the rigging in the former sketch, using a richer tone of graphite, is close enough to the effect seen in this drawing to suggest that a date of 1797 is tenable. Likewise, the manner in which the crowded row of shipping is beached in the mud in the latter sketch of Bristol harbour is similar to what is seen in the scene depicted here, indicating that this work too illustrates the way in which vessels were twice-daily stranded by the tidal river Avon, prior to the construction of the Floating Harbour a few years later. The issue is by no means clear-cut, as there is not sufficient topographical detail to confirm the identification, but the scene certainly sits better with the other Bristol scenes, and the random jumble of forms is more consistent with an on-the-spot sketch than a copy from another artist, as in the case of the Dover views.

Boats in a Harbour

A pencil drawing of a similar port scene with beached vessels appeared at an auction in 2009, when it was listed as ‘Attributed to Thomas Girtin’ (see figure 19) (Exhibitions: Bonhams, 28 April 2009, lot 12). According to Bonhams’ ‘Explanation of Catalogue terms’, this means ‘probably a work by the artist but less certainty as to authorship is expressed than in the preceding category’ which alllows for no doubts. I think ‘possibly’ might be the better word, because although the work has a number of features in common with Girtin’s shipping studies, and it may even show Bristol too, it lacks the range and subtlety of touch displayed in even the most utilitarian of his sketches.


1798 - 1799

Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol


1795 - 1796

Dover Harbour: Small Boats by the Quay


(?) 1797

Bristol: St Mary Redcliffe, from the Harbour


(?) 1797

Bristol Harbour and St Mary Redcliffe


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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