For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are the instructions how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.
Works Thomas Girtin

St Vincent's Rocks from Nightingale Valley, near Bristol

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1284: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), St Vincent's Rocks from Nightingale Valley, near Bristol, 1798–99, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 44.6 × 54 cm, 17 ½ × 21 ¼ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Martyn Gregory Ltd. (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • St Vincent's Rocks from Nightingale Valley, near Bristol
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
44.6 × 54 cm, 17 ½ × 21 ¼ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Somerset and Bristol

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2000


Edward Cohen (1817–86), bought 1873, £30 (lent to London, 1875); ... Christie’s, 3 April 1962, lot 167 as 'A Wooded River Landscape with Distant Tower'; Phillips, 17 April 2000, lot 182 as 'Wooded Landscape by a River with Distant Tower', £6,000; Martyn Gregory Ltd, 2000

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.83 as 'Nightingale Valley, near Bristol'


Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.207 as 'Untraced ... Nightingale Valley, near Bristol'; Greenacre, 2005, p.56 as 'St Vincent's Rocks from Nightingale Valley'

About this Work

This view from Nightingale Valley looking up to St Vincent’s Rocks, with the old windmill prominent on the skyline, has until recently been unidentified, known only as Wooded Landscape by a River with a Distant Tower. A work titled ‘Nightingale Valley, near Bristol’ was shown at the 1875 Girtin centenary exhibition, and the identification of the location shown in this watercolour indicates that it is that untraced work. It is surprising that the location remained unknown for so long because the view from Leigh Woods is a familiar one from the work of Bristol School artists such as Francis Danby (1815/16–75), who often sketched in the area east of Clifton. However, as Francis Greenacre has noted, the valley is actually riverless and Girtin appears to have adapted the scene, pushing ‘St Vincent’s Rocks into the distance and … he invented a winding stream, which he substituted for the steep pathway’ (Greenacre, 2005, p.56). Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) drew a similar view around 1813, just before the old windmill seen in Girtin’s view was converted into an observatory (Tate Britain, Turner Bequest (CXXXV 6)). The view, which was changed fundamentally by the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge later in the nineteenth century, was not so well known when Girtin visited Bristol, however, presumably during his tour of the West Country in the autumn of 1797. Visiting artists at that time concentrated on the more spectacular views along the Avon Gorge, so it may be that, as with a number of other scenes the artist sketched on his trip to the region, Girtin was something of a pioneer in seeking out a different perspective on the city’s setting.

Sadly, the watercolour has faded grievously, so much so that initially I questioned the attribution of the work to Girtin. The second largest of the watercolours that were created following the 1797 tour, and what should be an impressive sight, has lost the sky almost totally, whilst the distinctive red colouring of St Vincent’s Rocks has also gone. Just as damaging, in terms of the overall effect, is the way that the foliage has dulled to a flat and formless mass. Such a large-scale work was no doubt framed for display, but, though the consequent exposure to light no doubt hastened the deterioration of its condition, this was also probably not helped by Girtin’s increasing use after 1797–98 of glazes of fugitive pigments, such as indigo for the blues and gamboge for the yellows. For, although the artist must have acquired a basic knowledge of pigment science from Edward Dayes (1763–1804), he was not prepared to ‘sacrifice brilliancy to permanency’, as his master put it, choosing instead to use a palette that created luminous, attention-attracting results, but at the expense of a work’s long-term condition (Dayes, Works, p.300).1 The results are particularly badly felt in larger works such as this and On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey (TG1554), where the loss of the blues and yellows leaves the utilitarian pencil work exposed and the boldly blocked-out forms of the vegetation appear so crude as to raise doubts about Girtin’s authorship. In this case, as with the Wharfe view, just enough evidence of the artist’s pattern-making skills remains to confirm the attribution, though the work itself is a pale shadow of its former state.

1800 - 1801

On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Dayes’ thoughts on the subject are contained in Instructions for Drawing and Coloring Landscapes which was published posthumously in 1805. It is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1805 – Item 2).

Revisions & Feedback

The website will be updated from time to time and, when changes are made, a PDF of the previous version of each page will be archived here for consultation and citation.

Please help us to improve this catalogue

If you have information, a correction or any other suggestions to improve this catalogue, please contact us.