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Works (?) Thomas Girtin after Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The Dark Prison (Carcere Oscura)

1797 - 1798

Primary Image: TG0889: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), after Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78), The Dark Prison (Carcere Oscura), 1797–98, graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on laid paper, 44.2 × 30.8 cm, 17 ⅜ × 12 ⅛ in. British Museum, London (1863,0110.25).

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

Artist's source: Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78), etching, 'Carcere Oscura con Antenna per Suplizio de' Malfatori' (Dark Prison with a Courtyard for the Punishment of Criminals) for Prima Parte di Architetture e Prospettive (Part One of Architecture and Perspectives), 1743, 36.5 × 23.7 cm, 14 ⅜ × 9 ⁵⁄₁₆ in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (37.45.3(5)).

Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937 (Public Domain)

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)
  • The Dark Prison (Carcere Oscura)
1797 - 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on laid paper
44.2 × 30.8 cm, 17 ⅜ × 12 ⅛ in
Object Type
Work from a Known Source: Foreign Master
Subject Terms
Imaginary Scene

The Dark Prison (Carcere Oscura) (TG0889)
Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


John Henderson (1764–1843); then by descent to John Henderson II (1797–1878); presented to the Museum, 1863

Exhibition History

Arts Council, 1978, no.216 as ’Attributed to’ Thomas Girtin; Sheffield, 1988, no.27i


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.94 as 'Carceri no.2'; Gage, 1987, p.102; Ibata, 2018, pp.216–17; British Museum, Collection as by Thomas Girtin

About this Work

This watercolour is based on an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78) that was titled Carcere Oscura con Antenna per Suplizio de’ Malfatori (Dark Prison with a Courtyard for the Punishment of Criminals) and published in 1743 (see the source image above). The drawing is larger than the original etching – unlike a second version, which is exactly the same size (see figure 1) – but otherwise it follows the composition reasonably closely, replicating the figures, and many of the architectural details and the distribution of light. Overlaying images of the watercolour with the Piranesi print highlights the changes made by Girtin and there is no question of the artist having traced or slavishly copied the original. Thus details such as the chain suspended from the pulley to the left are omitted, whilst Girtin’s drawing significantly expands the composition laterally to create a less claustrophobic effect. The watercolour comes from the collection of one of Girtin’s most important early patrons, John Henderson (1764–1843), and, along with works such as The Temple of Augustus at Pula in Istria (TG0886) and Rome: The Capitol from the South East (TG0891), it appears to bear out the testimony of the early biographer of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Walter Thornbury (1828–76), that Girtin ‘studied … and copied’ Piranesi’s prints at Henderson’s home at the Adelphi in London (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, p.87). Nonetheless, there has been some question about the attribution of the work; Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak did not include it in their catalogue (Girtin and Loshak, 1954), whilst Tom Girtin (1913–94) thought that it was executed by Henderson (Girtin Archive, 14). This too was my opinion when I first examined the drawing; the poor anatomy in the figures and the unconvincing perspective that results from the opening out of the space to the right of the composition suggested the work of an amateur. However, a growing familiarity with Girtin’s copies after prints has helped to changed my thoughts, and I would point to the careful articulation of space through the subtle manipulation of light as being beyond the capabilities of Henderson. On balance, I now think that the work is by Girtin himself.

The Dark Prison (Carcere Oscura)

Figure 1.
(?) Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Dark Prison (Carcere Oscura), graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 35.8 × 23.4 cm, 14 ⅛ × 9 ¼ in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (06.1051.3).

Digital image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain).

One of the complicating factors with the attribution of the work to Girtin is its relationship with a second copy of Piranesi’s etching in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (see figure 1), which is attributed to Turner. Overlaying images of the two watercolours on top of the etching shows that the Metropolitan Museum version not only adopts the same dimensions as the print but replicates the architectural details that are altered in the larger version in the British Museum. Looking at the New York watercolour in isolation, I was tempted to conclude that it too might be by Girtin, with the arguably weaker British Museum version given to Henderson. Having now seen both works, however, I am inclined to believe that the former is by Turner perhaps working for Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), perhaps even with the aid of Girtin, and that in this instance the two artists each produced a version of the same print, though for different patrons and with varying degrees of fidelity to the source material.

Image Overlay

1797 - 1798

The Temple of Augustus at Pula in Istria


1797 - 1798

Rome: The Capitol from the South East


by Greg Smith

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