Much of the problem I have with Girtin and Loshak’s fanciful idea that this is Girtin’s last work is that they read the work primarily in terms of the artist’s biography, finding tragic significance where I see more prosaic explanations. Thus, rather than basing his work on an earlier print after Jean Baptiste Chatelain (c.1710–58) (see figure 3) and changing every element of the composition in a ‘last step towards freedom of expression’, I suspect that Girtin simply worked up a simple pencil sketch made on the spot on his West Country tour in 1797 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.92). Likewise, though the effect of the work does indeed depend on a sophisticated use of colour, which creates both pattern and a sense of space, the ‘sombre atmosphere’ depends as much on the work’s faded state, which fortuitously matches the evening effect. Even without the fact that we now have a very likely candidate for Girtin’s last work, the decidedly undramatic St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury (TG1756), I would still balk at a conclusion that is not just historically unsound but also lacking in objectivity, as the watercolour was owned by the Girtin family at the time that Girtin and Loshak were writing. Moreover, although Thomas Girtin believed that St Vincent’s Rocks and the Avon Gorge had descended directly through his family from the artist to himself, and that he therefore owned his ancestor’s final testament, there is no evidence that the artist’s son, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74), did not acquire it on the art market sometime in the mid-nineteenth century along with most, if not all, of the works he subsequently bequeathed to his children. Indeed, I suspect that, as with the comparable view Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, which shares the same dimensions (32.1 × 52.7 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ¾ in), the work was produced as part of a large batch of watercolours that the artist supplied to Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer. The idea that St Vincent’s Rocks and the Avon Gorge is no different from a sizeable group of commodities that Girtin produced around 1800–1801 does not mean that I do not also find it a deeply moving and profound work, and I would not differ to any great extent from Girtin and Loshak’s description of the work’s transcendent beauties. But I do take exception to their biographical reading of the watercolour when there is no evidence that Girtin ever regarded his work as a vehicle for self-expression, especially of the tragic kind associated with the figure of the ‘true Romantic’ artist, as they termed him (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.94).
On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a white laid writing paper, made by an unknown English manufacturer, and he has confirmed that the paper’s strange texture, seen particularly to the lower left, is caused by flax from low-grade linen rags that did not take up the bleach used to whiten the rags (Smith, 2002b, p.223; Bower, Report). The watercolour is backed onto a contemporary two-ply pale grey laid paper, possibly by the artist himself.
1800 - 1801
Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey
St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury