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Works Thomas Girtin

The Archangel Gabriel Awaiting Night, from John Milton's Paradise Lost

(?) 1799

Primary Image: TG1505: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Archangel Gabriel Awaiting Night, from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost', (?) 1799, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 30.8 × 25.1 cm, 12 ⅛ × 9 ⅞ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.4.1216).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Archangel Gabriel Awaiting Night, from John Milton's Paradise Lost
(?) 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
30.8 × 25.1 cm, 12 ⅛ × 9 ⅞ in

‘Betwixt these rocky Pillars Gabriel Sate / Chief of the Angelic Guard awaiting night’ on an old mount, now detached

Object Type
Sketching Society Drawing
Subject Terms
Literary Subject

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


John Gere (1921–95); P & D Colnaghi & Co., 1966; bought from them by Paul Mellon (1907–99); presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

New Haven, 1986a, no.72


Morris, 1986, p.20

About this Work

This monochrome study, which illustrates a scene from John Milton’s (1608–74) Paradise Lost (book 4, lines 549–50), was almost certainly produced by Girtin at a meeting of the Sketching Society in 1799. In the first phase of the society’s existence, before its rules were codified and the passages that were selected for illustration were carefully inscribed in the Minute Book, the aims of ‘the Brothers’ were singularly ambitious. According to an inscription on the back of a drawing by François Louis Thomas Francia (1772–1839), the members, who also included the amateurs Thomas Richard Underwood (1772–1836), John Charles Denham (1777–1867) and Thomas George Worthington (unknown dates), and young professionals of Girtin’s generation, Paul Sandby Munn (1773–1845) and George Samuel (active 1785–1823), ‘met for the purpose of establishing by practice a school of Historic Landscape, the subjects being designs from poetick passages’ (Smith, 2002b, p.131). And who better as a model for watercolourists aspiring to create a ‘school of Historic Landscape’ than Milton, the author of the great English biblical epic and so very different from the descriptive poets chosen for later meetings, where passages ‘tending to Landscape’ posed less of a challenge to the members (TG1501)?

James Barry (1741–1806), etching, 'Elysium and Tartarus or the State of Final Retribution', 1 May 1791, 42.2 × 92 cm, 16 ⅝ × 36 ¼ in. British Museum, London (1848,1125.569).

As if to illustrate the lofty original aims of the ‘Brothers’, Girtin turned to the contemporary artist who aspired to the highest ideals of history painting, James Barry (1741–1806), and to one of the six enormous canvasses he painted for the walls of the Society of Arts in London, which illustrated The Progress of Human Culture, as he titled the sequence. Thus, in what is Girtin’s only serious essay in the grand manner, albeit on a small scale and the product of just three hours’ labour in the studio of a fellow artist, the watercolourist depicted the archangel Gabriel waiting for night in a pose that was clearly derived from the guardian angel in the final scene of the Progress, Elysium and Tararus (see figure 1) – though it was presumably the print, published in 1791, that the artist created his variant. As befits an artist who had not undergone rigorous training in figure drawing in the Royal Academy schools, the anatomy of the figure leaves something to be desired. Additionally, Girtin’s response to the lines

Betwixt these rocky pillars Gabriel sat,
Chief of the angelic guards, awaiting night

is disappointingly literal as Girtin depicts the sun setting between rocky pillars with an owl swooping above. Not surprisingly, no echoes of this more ambitious phase of the Sketching Society’s activities reappear in Girtin’s later landscapes, and the other sketches he produced from poetic sources are not noticeably different from his standard topographical scenes.


The Frozen Watermill, from William Cowper’s ‘The Task’


by Greg Smith

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