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Works Thomas Girtin

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1613: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 14.2 × 20.2 cm, 5 ⅝ × 8 in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.10).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
14.2 × 20.2 cm, 5 ⅝ × 8 in

‘above Bolton’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Part of
Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
River Scenery; The View from Above; Yorkshire View

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey (TG1684)
Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey (TG1685)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
441i as 'Above Bolton Generally known as Stepping Stones on the Wharfe ... Water-Colour Sketch'; '1801'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018


Chambers Hall (1786–1855); presented to the Museum, 1855

Exhibition History

London, 1973, no.189; Manchester, 1975, no.86; Norwich, 1977, no.L42; London, 1985, no.80b; Lincoln, 1997, no.30; Harewood, 1999, no.17 as ’Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey’, c.1800; London, 2002, no.127


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.15b as 'Above Bolton'; Binyon, 1900, pl.6; Hughes, 1913, p.34; Binyon, 1933, p.106; Mayne, 1949, p.93; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.83; Tuck, 1997, p.399

About this Work

This fine on-the-spot colour sketch is inscribed ‘above Bolton’ and shows the view looking north across the river Wharfe towards Simon’s Seat. Though the ruins of Bolton Priory are outside the composition, the well-known stepping stones, which give the work its popular title, are visible to the left. The ruin’s picturesque setting alongside the curving river, backed by what one writer called a ‘mighty amphitheatre of rugged mountains’, was frequently praised by contemporary travellers to the area, and Bolton subjects were not surprisingly popular with Girtin’s patrons (Anonymous, 1813, p.15). Indeed, two finished watercolours were made from this sketch (TG1684 and TG1685), both of which emphasise the broader dramatic setting rather than the more conventionally picturesque views of the ruins shown amongst trees that mark the majority of the more than a dozen views of Bolton that Girtin also executed (such as TG1678 and TG1679). Girtin’s visit to Bolton probably took place in the summer of 1800 at the behest of his patron Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) of Harewood House, for whom the artist produced a major commission, On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey (TG1554). That watercolour actually depicts the same cliff-face opposite the ruins shown here, but is even more radical in its avoidance of the standard picturesque Bolton view. Neither of the watercolours showing the view of the stepping stones appears to have any connection with Lascelles, however, so Girtin must have been confident that he would find other supportive patrons who would favour a sublime view of upland scenery over a picturesque ruin scene. This would have justified his investment of the extra time needed to produce a colour sketch rather than a pencil drawing.

Both of these types of sketch are to be found in the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1323, TG1324 and TG1600–1625), which in its original form was probably a gathering of sheets of paper put together by the artist himself, before it assumed its final bound state after Girtin’s death. This sheet has the same dimensions as the twenty-two sketches that still remain in the book, and it is very likely that it was one of half a dozen or so colour sketches that were removed from the book for sale, probably by the artist himself, including A Distant View of Bolton Abbey (TG1614). A stub where page thirty-six was once located includes traces of pencil and watercolour that might accord with this sheet, though the fact that Girtin’s gathering of paper was rebound means that it may not be significant that the next page includes a pencil drawing of Bolton Priory (TG1616). Moreover, although the sketch displays clear evidence of having been worked on the spot, with characteristic features such as a limited range of tints, a fluid and watery quality to the washes, and the fact that the artist accidentally marked it with his finger to the right, it is not clear that it was painted directly into the Book of Drawings. The artist seems to have used his gathering of drawings as a model book from which patrons might select views to be realised as finished watercolours, but it may be that such on-the-spot sketches were bound in later. Whatever the case, the sketch is rightly held in wide esteem for the way that the artist has achieved a remarkable spaciousness with a few rapidly applied washes of colour.[fn]Whilst not questioning its status as an on-the-spot study, Tom Girtin (1913–94), who travelled to the area in search of the viewpoints adopted by his ancestor, noted that in this case the artist had ‘dismantled the landscape and reassembled it’, moving the distant mountain closer and shifting it ‘several compass points’. As for the elevated viewpoint adopted by Girtin, it would, he claimed, have required the hire of ‘Signor Lunardi’s Hot-Air Balloon’ (Girtin Archive, 32).

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a white wove paper by an unknown manufacturer, though he observed that it was not typical of English production at this time (Smith, 2002b, p.163; Bower, Report). This is the same support that Girtin used for two other drawings that were probably removed from the Whitworth Book of Drawings, Mulgrave Park and Castle (TG1626) and Gordale Scar Waterfall (TG1630).

1800 - 1801

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey


1800 - 1801

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey



Bolton Abbey: The East End of the Priory Church, from across the River Wharfe



Bolton Abbey, from the River Wharfe


1800 - 1801

On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey


(?) 1800

A Distant View of Bolton Abbey


(?) 1800

Bolton Abbey, from the River Wharfe


(?) 1800

Mulgrave Park and Castle, from near Epsyke Farm


(?) 1800

Gordale Scar Waterfall


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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