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Works Thomas Girtin

St Albans Abbey, from the North West

(?) 1796

Primary Image: TG1037: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), St Albans Abbey, from the North West, (?) 1796, graphite on wove paper, 26.7 × 21 cm, 10 ½ × 8 ¼ in. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (6214).

Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • St Albans Abbey, from the North West
(?) 1796
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
26.7 × 21 cm, 10 ½ × 8 ¼ in
Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; Hertfordshire

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
106 as 'St. Alban's Cathedral'; '1795'
Description Source(s)
Gallery Website


Charles Stokes (1785–1853); then by descent to Thomas Hughes and his neice, Alice Ellen Hughes; her sale, Sotheby’s, 28 November 1922, lot 130 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; bought by 'Colnaghi', £26; Henry Oppenheimer (1859–1932); his posthumous sale, Christie's, 21 July 1936, lot 145; bought by 'Colnaghi', £37 16s; Spink & Son, Ltd., London, 1948; the Fine Art Society, London; David Eccles, 1st Viscount Eccles (1904–99); P & D Colnaghi & Co; bought from them, 1953

Exhibition History

Spink’s, London, 1948, no.133 as by Thomas Girtin

About this Work

This view of the exterior of St Albans Abbey, shown from a point close to the north extremity of the west end looking towards the great Norman crossing tower, is one of a group of images of the church and its surrounds that Girtin seems to have sketched around 1796, others including The Gateway, St Albans Abbey (TG1034) and St Albans Abbey: The West Porch (TG1035). The artist presumably visited the site to take the sort of detailed study required to produce the major watercolour view of the interior of the church that was shown at the Royal Academy in 1797 and is dated 1796 (TG1040). It is possible that this drawing was produced with a similar-scale composition in mind but this time showing an exterior view. Certainly there is enough information included in the sheet for Girtin to have produced a detailed depiction of the abbey that might have resembled one of the impressive views of Gothic buildings that he painted for his early patron James Moore (1762–99) around 1794–95. Indeed, the awkward effect that results from adopting a close viewpoint looking down the extensive length of the not-so high nave to a dominant tower recalls Girtin’s view of Louth Church (TG1029), of around 1795, and the problems the artist had in compressing a view of the longest nave in Britain into a vertical near square composition might explain why he did not realise the composition as anything more substantial.1

The drawing has been attributed in the past to Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), who visited St Albans in 1793 and produced a detailed sketch of the abbey's west front (Tate, Turner Bequest XXIII K) from which he realised an attractive  watercolour soon after (Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, 1928P583). The attribution to Girtin feels secure, however, even though the drawing’s weaknesses cannot help but make me wonder whether, rather than being an on-the-spot drawing, this was not another case of the artist copying a sketch from a secondary source. In other words, is the fact that Girtin came to St Albans to sketch around 1796 colouring our judgement about a drawing that, in comparison with views such as St Albans Abbey: The West Porch, seems less assured? Searching through the views of St Albans made by the significant number of artists who visited this location, which was close enough to London to be reached on a day trip, has not yet turned up any candidates for Girtin’s source, however. Moreover, I have not entirely ruled out the possibility that the drawing, although surely by Girtin, might have actually been worked over an on-the-spot sketch made by Moore on one of his numerous antiquarian tours, as in the case of a number of views of churches in Sussex, such as The West Tower, All Saints’ Church, Hastings (TG0227). The manner in which a set of faint lines seem to have been enhanced by sharper, more assured touches, combined with the awkward perspective, which leaves whole areas unresolved and unclear, suggests that this might be a possibility, though working from a photograph makes this difficult to confirm.

The drawing’s provenance has also been the subject of some confusion (Exhibitions: Birmingham, 1939, no.194a), but this seems to have been sorted out by Paul Oppé (1878–1957), who bought the work for the National Gallery of Canada in 1953. The details given here follow those that Oppé passed on to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960), which are noted in the Girtin Archive (29).

(?) 1796

The Gateway, St Albans Abbey


(?) 1796

St Albans Abbey: The West Porch



The Interior of St Albans Abbey


1796 - 1797

Louth Church



The West Tower, All Saints’ Church, Hastings


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Since drafting this entry an unpublished watercolour hitherto attributed to Turner but which appears to have been painted by Girtin has been drawn to my attention by Timothy Wilcox.

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