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Works Thomas Girtin

St Nicholas’ Church, Newcastle upon Tyne

(?) 1798

Primary Image: TG1460: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), St Nicholas' Church, Newcastle upon Tyne, (?) 1798, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 35.5 × 30.4 cm, 14 × 11 ⅞ in. Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool (FA.225).

Photo courtesy of Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • St Nicholas’ Church, Newcastle upon Tyne
(?) 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
35.5 × 30.4 cm, 14 × 11 ⅞ in

‘Girtin’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Exhibition Watercolour; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
City Life and Labour; Durham and Northumberland; Gothic Architecture: Parish Church

St Nicholas’ Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (TG1083)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


Sir Charles Sydney Jones (1872–1947); bequeathed to Liverpool University, 1947

Exhibition History

Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.703 as ’St. Nicholas’s church, Newcastle’ (London Packet, 14 – 16 May 1798); Agnew’s, 1931, no.117; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.25; Manchester, 1975, no.33; Liverpool, 1977, no.33; Newcastle, 1982, no.84; London, 2002, no.51


Mayne, 1949, p.45

About this Work

This view of the church of St Nicholas in Newcastle upon Tyne, now the city’s cathedral, was almost certainly made from a sketch the artist made during his trip to the northern counties and Scottish Borders in 1796. An engraving after Girtin’s panoramic view of the city, published in 1797 (see TG1081 figure 1), clearly places him in Newcastle the year earlier, presumably at the behest of the publisher John Walker (active 1776–1802), who wished to celebrate the city’s striking combination of commercial wealth and ancient heritage. The town, Walker noted, could boast much of interest both for ‘the antiquary’ and those concerned with the city’s ‘commerce’ and its status as ‘the greatest emporium in the north of England’, and this was precisely what Girtin focused on here (Walker, 1792–1802, vol.3, no.66, pl.131). Thus, not only did he make a bold feature of the ‘fine old structure’ of St Nicholas’ Church, with its ‘singular’ fifteenth-century open lantern (Dayes, Works, p.79) – which had attracted the interest of his master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804) – but he also paid almost equal attention to what another visitor called ‘the refinements of luxurious opulence’ attendant on ‘successful commerce’ (Skrine, 1795, p.78). Two rows of shops, with their fine plate glass windows for the display of goods, dominate the foreground, their function announced by prominent signs. The latter, which are not visible in the engraving of the composition (see print after TG1083), were presumably invented by the artist as they improbably announce ‘A LASS STAY WAREHOUSE’ and ‘JOHN SNEEZE SNUFF’. The source of the wealth needed to support the world of consumer goods on display is also alluded to in the form of two hauliers, who are engaged in distributing coal about a town that benefitted so materially from the trade.

Though Tom Girtin (1913–94) thought the watercolour too ‘feeble’ to have been the ‘St. Nicholas’s church, Newcastle’ shown by Girtin at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1798 (Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.703), his alternative candidate remains untraced (TG1083), and I am unpersuaded by his arguments (Girtin Archive, 35). Certainly, the Gothic tower is not well served by Girtin’s careless perspective, which also distorts the line of shops to the right, but the overall effect tallies closely with the one review that the work attracted at the exhibition. An anonymous writer thus claimed that it displayed a ‘stile of drawing productive of some effect, but not to be recommended, as the objects are ill defined’ (London Packet, 14 – 16 May 1798). It seems that Girtin’s watercolour divided opinion then as now, since another critic writing about the same exhibition came to the contrary conclusion, noting that the ‘effect’ of his ‘daring and vigorous execution’ would be compromised by a greater ‘attention to finishing’ (Monthly Mirror, July 1798). A title that promises a standard topographical view but where the work actually delivers a scene of commerce could not have helped critics unsure of Girtin’s move away from a style suited to the enumeration of architectural details for a clientele primarily concerned with securing records of the nation’s heritage.

1797 - 1798

St Nicholas’ Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne


1797 - 1798

St Nicholas’ Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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