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Works Thomas Girtin

Southampton: The South Gate and Old Gaol

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1726: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Southampton: The South Gate and Old Gaol, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on paper, 14.6 × 19.7 cm, 5 ¾ × 7 ⅞ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Christie's (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: Joseph Powell (c.1778–1840), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), etching, 'The Prison at Southampton', 18 × 21.5 cm, 7 ⅛ × 8 ½ in. British Museum, London (Q,7.120).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Southampton: The South Gate and Old Gaol
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on paper
14.6 × 19.7 cm, 5 ¾ × 7 ⅞ in

‘The Prison at Southampton. / T. Girtin delt. 1800’ on the back of an early mount

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; Gothic Architecture: Town and Domestic Fortifications; Hampshire View

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2002


William Alexander (1767–1816); his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 12 March 1817, lot 1215 as 'View (highly finished) of the Prison at Southampton Girtin', unsold at a reserve of £4 4s; George Cooke (1781–1834); his sale, Christie's, 12 July 1833, lot 86 as 'The prison at Southampton', unsold at a reserve of £4 4s 6d (recorded as bought by ‘Smith’); his subsequent sale, Christie’s, 2 May 1834, lot 463, £2 2s; Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro of Novar (1797–1864); Isabella Munro-Johnstone; Christie’s, 24 April 1868, lot 549; bought by Dr John Percy (1817–89), £6; his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 17 April 1890, lot 517; bought by Thos. Agnew & Sons, £22 (stock no.9567), for Philip Cunliffe-Lister, 1st Earl of Swinton (1884–1972), plus 5% commission; his widow, Mary Constance, Countess of Swinton; her sale, Bonhams, 6 December 1972, lot 71; Fine Art Society, London; bought from them by Monica Girtin, £150; Tom Girtin (1913–94); his sale, Sotheby’s, 14 November 1991, lot 97, unsold; his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 14 July 1994, lot 113, £2,530; Christie’s, 6 June 2002, lot 24 as 'The prison at Southampton', £7,170


Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.210 as 'Untraced ... View of Southampton'

About this Work

This small watercolour shows the picturesque south gate of Southampton, to the left, and the old gaol that then occupied the fifteenth-century God’s House Tower in the centre, with a glimpse of the harbour behind. Girtin produced a number of views of Southampton and its immediate vicinity in Hampshire, but until recently I assumed they were made after the work of other artists, as was so often the case with views of antiquarian interest such as this. However, the discovery during the preparation of this online catalogue of a pencil sketch showing a distant view of the town (TG1234a), which actually includes the same buildings seen here, albeit on a very small scale, suggests that the artist may have visited the area after all, presumably as part of his trip to the West Country in the autumn of 1797, so this work may be after an untraced drawing made by Girtin at that time. A word of caution, though, since the form of the gatehouse differs in many respects from a watercolour of the same scene that has been attributed to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) (see figure 1), and it is much closer than Girtin’s view to the appearance of the buildings that still survive. Whether the artist is more likely to have departed from the appearance of the site because he was working from another source, perhaps the drawing of an amateur, or whether sketching on the spot gave him a licence to improve upon what he saw, I am still undecided. Likewise, the date of 1800 for the work, which comes from an inscription on the back of an old mount, also poses problems. The collector Dr John Percy (1817–89) was an assiduous documenter of the drawings in his possession, but the use of ‘delt.’, short for the Latin term ‘delinit’, meaning ‘he delineated’, was a form that Girtin used only on a handful of his earliest works. This suggests that the inscription, including the date, was not simply copied from a lost or hidden piece of writing by the artist. The fact that the watercolour has faded so badly, having lost the blues in the sky, the grey tones of the clouds and the greens in the tree to the right, also makes it difficult to confirm the date from stylistic evidence. Nonetheless, although the format of the drawing, approximating to a sheet taken from a sketchbook, might more readily be associated with the sort of pseudo-sketches that the artist produced in numbers around 1796–97, in the end I suspect that Percy’s inscription was based on something more than intuition, and so I have also dated the work to around 1800.

Another version of the subject, worked on the same scale, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see figure 2). Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak thought that it is ‘more likely to be by [John] Henderson’, though a more recent catalogue of the collection continues to list it as by Girtin (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.210; Lambourne and Hamilton, 1980, p.151). The work is very badly faded, making a definitive judgement difficult. However, although it could be a copy, perhaps after the etching (see the print after above), I am inclined to the view that it is an inferior version by Girtin compromised further by its condition, and there certainly seems no reason to attribute it to John Henderson (1764–1843).

An etching by Joseph Powell (c.1778–1840) titled ‘The Prison at Southampton’ was amongst a large group of prints given to the British Museum in 1810 by the artist William Alexander (1767–1816), who had been appointed the museum’s Keeper of Prints and Drawings in 1808. This was amongst a group of ten prints of topographical subjects in Hampshire, and, given that it is clearly after Girtin’s watercolour, this confirms that the current work was indeed the ‘View (highly finished) of the Prison at Southampton’ that was included in Alexander’s posthumous sale in 1816 (Exhibitions: Sotheby’s, 12 March 1817, lot 1215). The etching reproduces the figures and the distribution of light so closely that we can be sure that it also records the form of a sky that has long since faded from sight in the watercolour.

(?) 1797

A Distant View of Southampton


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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