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Works Thomas Girtin

St Vincent’s Rocks and the Avon Gorge

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1735: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), St Vincent's Rocks and the Avon Gorge, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 32.1 × 52.7 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ¾ in. The Whitworth, The University of Manchester (D.1997.4).

Photo courtesy of The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Photo by Michael Pollard (All Rights Reserved)

Description
Creator(s)
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
Title
  • St Vincent’s Rocks and the Avon Gorge
Date
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
Dimensions
32.1 × 52.7 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ¾ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Somerset and Bristol; The View from Above

Collection
Catalogue Number
TG1735
Girtin & Loshak Number
488 as 'St. Vincent's Rocks, Clifton'; '1802'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and February 2020

Provenance

Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Girtin (1836–1912) (lent to London, 1875); then by descent to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; given to 'a Lady', 1990; her sale, Sotheby’s, 1 April 1993, lot 110, withdrawn; accepted by H. M. Governement in lieu of Inheritance Tax, and allocated to the Whitworth Art Gallery, 1997

Exhibition History

(?) Royal Academy, London, 1800, no.405 as ’Bristol Hot-well’; London, 1875, no.69 as 'St. Vincent's Rock, Clifton'; London, 1912, no.45; Tate, 1920, no catalogue; Agnew’s, 1923, no.9; Chicago, 1923, no catalogue; Agnew’s, 1931, no.121; New Haven, 1950, no.19: Agnew’s, 1953a, no.26; Norwich, 1955, no.39; Leeds, 1958, no.57; London, 1962a, no.162; Reading, 1969, no.53; Manchester, 1975, no.103; London, 2002, no.172; Ghent, 2007, no.126

Bibliography

Johnson, 1932, p.146; Mayne, 1949, p.103; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.92–94, p.98, p.114; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, pl.12; Morris, 1986, p.23; Bower, 2002, p.140; Nugent, 2003, p.135

About this Work

This justly famous and celebrated watercolour depicts a familiar view on the Avon Gorge (see figure 1), looking west from Clifton Down towards Cook’s Folly on the horizon, with the red of St Vincent’s Rocks helping to complete the memorable image. For Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, the first cataloguers of Girtin’s watercolours, the drawing had the added significance of probably being the artist’s ‘last work’, the result of a ‘last creative leap’ that saw an extreme reduction of forms so that ‘every detail has been “simplified” out of existence’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.92–94). However, as Susan Morris has argued, the radical simplification of forms can be accounted for by the naturalistic depiction of the effect of twilight, and there is no evidence that the watercolour was executed in Girtin’s last year (Morris, 1986, p.23). Indeed, it may date from 1800 on the basis of its compositional similarities with Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe (TG1684), in which case it might even have been the untraced view ‘Bristol, Hot-well’ that Girtin showed at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1800 (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1800, no.405). The popular spa may be out of view in Girtin’s scene, but it is arguably close enough to his viewpoint to have justified the title. Girtin and Loshak’s reading of the watercolour in personal terms, as a creative response to an awareness of his impending death, is also undermined by contemporary accounts and images of the site, which indicate that Girtin was working within a well-established literary and visual tradition. George William Manby (1765–1854), for instance, described a ‘wonderful theatre … rent asunder by some violent convulsion of nature’, and, as others noted, this was literally true, since the cliffs were quarried to reveal a rock of a red ‘hue, that conveys to the mind the idea of ignition’ (Manby, 1802a, p.31; Ibbetson, Laporte and Hassell, 1793, p.179). The vivid colour of the rocks in Girtin’s watercolour is thus faithful to the scene, carrying with it suitably violent associations that are matched by the choice of a twilight effect that the guidebooks also recommended as best for viewing the gorge. A ‘warm sun-set’, according to an anonymous writer, was the perfect accompaniment for the ‘full red’ of the rocks, whilst Manby wondered whether any artist could capture the ‘tints beautifully brilliant’ that illuminate the scene (Ibbetson, Laporte and Hassell, 1793, p.184; Manby, 1802a, p.58). Girtin’s daring composition, with its evocative twilight, might have been superior to the more prosaic topographical views that preceded it (see figure 1 and figure 2), but it would have matched the expectations of the sort of well-informed tourists who might have been expected to buy the watercolour.

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

TG1684

(?) 1802

St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury

TG1756

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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