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Works Thomas Girtin

Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1290: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol, 1798–99, watercolour on laid paper, 28.6 × 26 cm, 11 ¼ × 10 ¼ in. Harewood House (HHTP:2001.2.25).

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
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Watercolour on laid paper
28.6 × 26 cm, 11 ¼ × 10 ¼ in

‘Girtin’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Docks and Canals; Somerset and Bristol

Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol (TG1289)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
409 as 'Harbour Scene, with Shipping'; '1800'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Edward Lascelles (1764–1814); then by descent to Henry Lascelles, 4th Earl of Harewood (1824–92); his sale, Christie’s, 1 May 1858, lot 15 as 'A harbour scene, with shipping', 5 gns; Edward Cohen (1817–86); then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); Thos. Agnew & Sons, 1934–37; bought by Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood (1882–1947); then by descent

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1934, no.90 as ’Dover Harbour’; Agnew’s, 1937, no.143; Harewood, 1999, no.9 as ’Ships in Harbour’, c.1798


Hill, 1995, pp.34–35 as c.1795; Hill, 1999, p.20 as c.1798

About this Work

This view of ships in a harbour is based on a slightly smaller on-the-spot pencil drawing that employs a similar square format (TG1289). The watercolour was at one point thought to show a scene at Dover, leading to suggestions that it was an early work, and was therefore related to copies of shipping scenes that Girtin produced with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) at the home of their mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) (TG0798) (Girtin Archive, 29; Hill, 1995, pp.34–35). Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak dated the watercolour to 1800, however, presumably because the work is known to have come from the collection of Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) of Harewood House in Yorkshire, but they left the location of the scene unresolved (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.190). The watercolour is surely later in date than the Monro shipping views, and it is also perhaps possible to be more specific about the identity of the harbour, for the array of ocean-going vessels depicted is inconsistent with the smaller groups of more modest ships typically shown in the views of Dover from around 1795–96. In particular, similarities between the pencil drawing and other outlines of Bristol harbour (TG1286 and TG1287) have led me to suspect that it was sketched on Girtin’s tour of the West Country in 1797. In particular, the manner in which the crowded row of shipping is beached in the mud in the latter view of Bristol harbour resembles the scene depicted here, suggesting that this work too illustrates how vessels were twice-daily stranded by the tidal river Avon in the period prior to the construction of the Floating Harbour. 

With insufficient topographical detail, confirmation of the location is always going to be difficult, but it may be that some progress can be made by looking at the connection of the watercolour with Lascelles, his patron. David Hill has suggested that the watercolour may have been ‘made while giving lessons to’ Lascelles (Hill, 1999, p.20). Whilst I cannot discern any evidence for this, the suggestion does point up the fact that the view does not fit into the general pattern of the works produced by Girtin for his patron, which were generally large in scale and featured views of Harewood and the neighbouring scenery. It is possible that this too shows a northern view and that it had a personal association for the patron, but it must have been quickly forgotten as the work was listed simply as ‘Boats’ in an inventory dating from 1814 (Hill, 1995, p.58). On balance, I am inclined to think that it may date from the earliest days of Girtin’s relationship with Lascelles and was not actually produced on commission. All of this is made more difficult to determine by the work’s poor condition, with the sky badly faded and the less fugitive earth colours left too dominant. 

Shipping on a Beach

One further question still remains unanswered, for, as Hill has again pointed out, the work bears a distinct resemblance to a watercolour by Girtin’s slightly older contemporary Samuel Owen (1768–1857) (see figure 1). Prior to the re-emergence of Girtin’s pencil sketch, Hill suggested that both works were based on the same ‘common source’ (Hill, 1995, pp.34–35). However, although it is still possible that either of the artists studied the work of the other, it may be that the similarities are simply down to the sorts of coincidences that happen when two contemporaries sketch the same scene at different times.

(?) 1797

Ships in a Harbour, Possibly at Bristol


1795 - 1796

Dover Harbour: Fishing Vessels, Their Sails Drying


(?) 1797

Bristol: St Mary Redcliffe, from the Harbour


(?) 1797

Bristol Harbour and St Mary Redcliffe


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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