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Works Thomas Girtin

The Abbey Mill, near Knaresborough

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1672: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Abbey Mill, near Knaresborough, 1800–01, graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and scratching out on laid paper, 32.4 × 55.2 cm, 12 ¾ × 21 ¾ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.4.1925).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Abbey Mill, near Knaresborough
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and scratching out on laid paper
32.4 × 55.2 cm, 12 ¾ × 21 ¾ in

‘Mr. Reynolds Poland St. Soho No.48’ on the back, by Samuel William Reynolds

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Wind and Water Mills; Yorkshire View

The Abbey Mill, near Knaresborough (TG1607)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
437ii as '1801'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835); ... E. H. Greg; James Cyril Butterwick; Sir George Davies; then by descent to Mrs Streatfield; Thos. Agnew & Sons; Sir William Arthington Worsley of Hovingham, 4th Baronet (1890–1973); Thos. Agnew & Sons, 1971 (stock no.0256); bought from them by Paul Mellon (1907–99); presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

Agnew's, 1944, no.70, £450 (as ’The Old Water-Mill’ in the first edition); Agnew’s, 1953a, no.94 as ’The Abbey Mill, Knaresborough’; Leeds, 1958, no.53; New York, 1972, no.96; New Haven, 1982, V.11.; New Haven, 1986a, no.83; New Haven, 1986b, no.30; Harewood, 1999, no.27; Richmond, Virginia, 2007, no.85


The Art Journal, vol.65 (1903), p.126; Worsley, 1963, no.24, p.6

About this Work

This fine late watercolour, showing the Abbey Mill near Knaresborough, on the river Nidd, is based on a sketch in the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1607). The original outline appears to date from 1800, the year in which Girtin made a number of other sketches in the close vicinity (such as TG1610) in preparation for a major commission from one of his most significant patrons, Edward Lascelles (1764–1814). Although Lascelles commissioned at least one watercolour of Knaresborough (TG1669), this view was almost certainly produced for sale on the open market, and thus would have been part of the stock of 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 back of the drawing is thus inscribed ‘Mr. Reynolds Poland St. Soho No.48’, and the watercolour itself conforms to the larger of the two standard sizes that Girtin produced for him to sell. A letter from Reynolds records that in October 1801 he owned ‘Drawings by Girtin … 19 Large size’ and that he valued them at ‘£7. 7 each’, whilst a later document notes that watercolours such as this sold for about £10 each (Reynolds, Letter, 1801; Reynolds, Letter, 1803).1

We do not know who Reynolds sold the work to, though there is a fair chance that the customer was unaware of the location depicted and that it was bought simply as a picturesque mill scene, irrespective of its specific topography. Unlike a commission, where the subject is specified by the patron, works produced as speculations, unless they show a well-known location, are likely to lose their identity and, typically, it was not until comparatively recently that the mill was recognised. What is more properly known as the Priory Mill stands just over a kilometre downriver from Knaresborough Castle, and, as Tom Girtin (1913–94) found when he photographed the site in the 1980s, the building, though just about recognisable, has been enlarged and modernised as a private house (Hill, 1999, p.44; photograph in the Girtin Archive, 35).

Happily, unlike too many of the watercolours that Girtin produced for Reynolds, this work is in good condition, though a protected strip to the right suggest that it has faded a little. The condition of the work allows one to appreciate a number of technical details that are otherwise difficult to spot, particularly Girtin’s sparing use of bodycolour for some of the highlights. Small patches of opaque white are thus touched over with green or blue in the foliage, or pink as on the riverbank, to create a sparkling effect that could not be realised in transparent watercolours alone. The white highlights in the river are treated very differently, with the foaming water of the undershot mill wheel created by leaving the paper untouched, whilst other areas, including the weir to the left, were created using a broad, dry brush, which allows the paper to show through as highlights, with just a sparing use of scratching out to vary the effect and offer some texture. The use of scratching out to create the figures to the right of the mill, in an area removed from the foliage, was apparently a late change of mind, added, presumably, to complement the overturned cart to the right.

The Abbey Mill, near Knaresborough

A small, faded copy of the composition is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see figure 1). It has been attributed to Girtin’s follower William Pearson (1772–1849), but, given the work’s provenance, Reynolds, who must have had access to the original, would appear to be the more likely candidate. However, the work is very poor in quality, and, though the artist has copied some details correctly, they have completely misunderstood the working of an undershot mill, and I suspect that the work was produced by a not very competent amateur artist. A poor quality image of what appears to be another copy of the composition is noted as having been through the hands of Thos. Agnew & Sons, though no other details are known.

(?) 1800

The Abbey Mill, near Knaresborough


(?) 1800

Grimbald Crag, near Knaresborough



A Distant View of Knaresborough, from the South East


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The letters are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 4 and 1803 – Item 3).

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