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Works Thomas Girtin

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1684: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey, 1800–01, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 32.7 × 51.8 cm, 12 ⅞ × 20 ⅜ in. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (D 5438).

Photo courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
32.7 × 51.8 cm, 12 ⅞ × 20 ⅜ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; The View from Above; Yorkshire View

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe (TG1613)
Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey (TG1685)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
441ii as 'Above Bolton / Generally known as / Stepping Stones on the Wharfe'; '1801'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and June 2018


Walter Benjamin Tiffin (1795–1877); bought from him by George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911), 16 August 1860, one of four that cost £48 (lent to London, 1862; London, 1875; London, 1877); then by descent to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; accepted by H. M. Governement in lieu of Inheritance Tax, and allocated to the National Gallery of Scotland, 1997

Exhibition History

London, 1862, no.814; London, 1875, no.37 as ’The Stepping Stones, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire’; London, 1877, no.313; Grafton Galleries, London, 1911, no.181; Cambridge, 1920, no.33; Agnew’s, 1921, no.44; Tokyo, 1929, no.75; Agnew’s, 1931, no.128; London, 1934b, no.730 as ’Stepping Stones’; Leeds, 1937, no.20; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.65; New York, 1956, no.40; Leeds, 1958, no.51; London, 1962a, no.164; London, 1968a, no.533; Reading, 1969, no.51; Paris, 1972, no.131; Manchester, 1975, no.87; Harewood, 1999, no.18; Edinburgh, 2001, no.6; London, 2002, no.128; Edinburgh, 2005, no.108


Binyon, 1900, p.19; Sparrow, 1902, p.80; Oppé, 1921, p.134; Binyon, 1933, p.106; Hardie, 1934, p.17; Mayne, 1949, p.53, p.62, p.65, p.73, p.104; Hughes and Mayne, 1950, pl.17; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.76–78; Hardie, 1954, no.35; Lemaître, 1955, p.192, p.196; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.19; Tuck, 1997, pp.399–400; Herrmann, 2000, p.41; Baker, 2011, p.132; Feather, 2014, p.231

About this Work

This watercolour, showing the view north towards the hill known as Simon’s Seat, with the stepping stones on the river Wharfe opposite the ruins of Bolton Priory showing prominently, is one of two almost identical versions of a composition that Girtin sketched on the spot (the other being TG1685). The original colour sketch (TG1613) was in all likelihood made on an excursion from Harewood House in the summer of 1800, where the artist was staying with his patron Edward Lascelles (1764–1814). Girtin painted part of this view, showing the central tree-lined cliff face, as a commission for Lascelles with the title On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey (TG1554). Neither of the more open, elevated views of the river was made for Lascelles, however, and there is some evidence that at least one of them was painted for Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer, to sell on the open market; a second version was therefore produced in response to the sale of the first. Which of the works is the ‘primary’ watercolour is difficult, if not impossible, to say, however; though there have been attempts to suggest that the other version demonstrates a greater ‘spontaneity’, I suspect that this just means that it is in a slightly less faded condition, without the unpleasant, hot tonality seen here (Exhibitions: Lowell Libson, London, 2011, pp.44–47). Just how much the watercolour has changed in appearance can be seen from the on-the-spot colour sketch, which includes the original cooler tints, the loss of which has caused such problems with this version. Having said that, the comparison also allows us to appreciate the subtle way in which Girtin refined the original sketch. The key lies in the manner in which the artist organised features such as the line of the riverbank, the stepping stones themselves and the forms of the cliffs into a series of powerful diagonals. This is most noticeable in the distant trees, which follow no discernible pattern in the sketch but are here structured into a series of parallel and intersecting lines that create a sense of recession, and this is also apparent in the cliffs, which gain spatial clarity as a result. The studio watercolour also illustrates more fully the benefit of Girtin’s use of a high viewpoint. This increased the area of the river that is visible, turning the plane of water into an arena for the play of shadows and reflections, which, in turn, register as highly attractive abstract shapes of flat colour.

Whether all of this is enough to justify Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak’s claim that the ‘Stepping Stones on the Wharfe of the Girtin collection’ is ‘the masterpiece of the period’ is open to question, however. The watercolour certainly is ‘a tour de force of dramatic lighting and composition’, but the authors were more concerned to show that this reflects ‘a new feeling of anguish’ and that, with the work dating from ‘the second half of 1801’, this was ‘connected with the state of [Girtin’s] health’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.76–78). Aside from the fact that this is unfortunately not an isolated case of where a ‘masterpiece’ just happened to be in the collection of one of the authors, or, indeed, of entirely speculative dating, this is a lot to hang onto a faded watercolour about which we know nothing for sure other than that it was a successful commodity in an impersonal art market. Therefore, regardless of whatever unknowable personal meanings the subject may have had for Girtin, the most interesting thing for me is the fact that the artist was able to convince at least two of his contemporaries to purchase views that literally saw him turn his back to a well-known beauty spot, with the picturesquely sited ruins of Bolton Priory omitted from the composition to the left. The ‘mighty amphitheatre of rugged mountains’ may have been praised by contemporary travellers to the area, but it took a considerable leap of imagination to omit the famous ruins and reduce them to a line of stones, much as the contemporary sculptor Richard Long (b.1945) might do today (Anonymous, 1813, p.15). The sorts of formal qualities highlighted above made the scene attractive to sympathetic collectors aside from the subject, however, and the view was no doubt acquired as an example of the work of an admired artist.1

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white wove paper by an unknown English manufacturer (Smith, 2002b, p.164; Bower, Report). The visible rough texture is the product of the use of a very coarse felt, rather than the laid and chain wires of a laid paper, however, and it is actually a late example of the use of a wove paper.

1800 - 1801

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey


(?) 1800

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe


1800 - 1801

On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 There is a possibility that this may have been Girtin’s early supporter and patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833). A folio of drawings made by him and other members of his family included a copy of the composition (Exhibitions: Sotheby’s, 13 July 1995, lot 3) so that either one of the finished watercolours (this work and TG1685) or the sketch on which they were based (TG1613) may have been available in his home at the Adelphi as the work was neither engraved nor shown in public.

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