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

The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau

(?) 1798

Primary Image: TG1319: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau, (?) 1798, graphite, watercolour and brush and ink on laid paper, 50.1 × 60.3 cm, 19 ¾ × 23 ¾ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.20).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau
(?) 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and brush and ink on laid paper
50.1 × 60.3 cm, 19 ¾ × 23 ¾ in
Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
North Wales; Waterfall Scenery

The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau (TG1320)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
322i as 'Cayne Waterfall, Merioneth ... Unfinished'; '1799'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018


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

Exhibition History

Manchester, 1975, no.59; London, 1985, no.77; Trento, 1993, no.10; London, 2002, no.120 as ’Cayne Waterfall, near Dolgellau, North Wales’


Ruskin, 1898, pp.184–85; Binyon, 1898–1907, no.55; Binyon, 1900, p.23; Sparrow, 1902, p.88; Finberg, 1905, pp.60–61; Binyon, 1931, p.107; Johnson, 1932, p.148; Binyon, 1933, p.104; Binyon, 1944, p.93; Hardie, 1934, p.6; Mayne, 1949, p.94; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.12; Nygren, 1982, p.15; Brett, 1984, p.111; Finch, 1991, p.39; Bower, 2002, p.138

About this Work

This large on-the-spot colour sketch showing the Cain Falls, near Dolgellau, was made on Girtin’s tour of North Wales in the summer of 1798, and it formed the basis for an impressive, though sadly faded, watercolour (TG1320). The work’s status as Girtin’s largest on-the-spot colour study can be established with some certainty by the evident speed with which the artist added just a few tints to a swift pencil sketch, losing control over some of the very liquid washes and leaving other areas untouched. Unusually for the artist, Girtin rapidly worked over the simple pencil lines with a brush and ink to establish no more than the basic elements of the scene, leaving for the studio the creation of a credible sense of space and a convincing tree-lined setting for the falls.

Pistyll Cain, as the waterfall is properly known, was a favourite stopping point on the road between Dolgellau and Ffestiniog for tourists in search of one of the picturesque waterfalls for which the region was famed. Another visitor to the site in 1798, the Revd John Evans (1768–c.1812), was enraptured by the approach through a ‘fairy region’ of ‘sylvan shades’, from where the falls could be heard ‘in an angry roar … like distant thunder’. Arriving at the bottom via a ‘truly alpine bridge’, he finally saw the water descend through ‘the rocky fissures’ and a ‘thick wooded glen, shaded by ancient oak’. The effect, Evans concluded, was an ‘enchanting style of romantic beauty’ (Evans, 1804, pp.105–6). Girtin almost certainly did not read such descriptions, but, in making what appears to have been quite a detour to depict the second, less vertiginous, part of the Cain Falls on such a large scale, he must have had either a commission for a finished watercolour of the view or a reasonable expectation that a well-known picturesque location would attract orders. We have no idea of the identity of the first owner of the watercolour that was produced from the sketch, but its scale and ambition suggest that if the commission was secured ahead of the tour, this helped to determine the artist’s route, as was presumably the case with the similar view of the Ogwen Falls (TG1330) produced for Edward Lascelles (1764–1814).

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white laid drawing cartridge paper, produced by an unknown Dutch manufacturer and worked on Girtin’s favoured wireside, where the surface is impressed with the lines of the mould used in its manufacture (Smith, 2002b, p.156; Bower, Report). The vertical fold evident in the centre of the sheet is an integral part of the handmade paper, resulting from the way in which it was dried over a rope (Bower, 2002, p.138). In a sketch such as this, the feature does not register perhaps as much as in a finished studio watercolour, where, nonetheless, the artist was equally content to accept the disturbance to the work’s overall effect (such as in TG1416).

The Cain Falls

Girtin’s slightly older contemporary James Ward (1769–1859) made a full-scale copy after this on-the-spot sketch (see figure 1) rather than the finished studio work, though it is not known how he got access to the study. Copying an artist’s sketch, thereby reproducing details of their handling, was not a common practice at this date, and watercolourists such as John Varley (1778–1842) typically studied finished works (see TG1334 figure 2 and TG1740 figure 1). It may be that, unlike younger contemporaries such as John and his brother Cornelius Varley (1781–1873) as well as John Sell Cotman (1782–1842), Ward had no opportunity to sketch in Girtin’s company, and he perhaps had recourse to making such a copy where others absorbed their lessons through observing him at work or actually sketching in his presence.

1798 - 1799

The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau


1798 - 1799

The Ogwen Falls


(?) 1799

A Mill in Essex


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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.