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 after (?) Edward Dayes

The Dover Mail, Dover Castle in the Distance

1791 - 1792

Primary Image: TG0075: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), after (?) Edward Dayes (1763–1804), The Dover Mail, Dover Castle in the Distance, 1791–92, graphite, watercolour, pen and ink and scratching out on paper, on an original mount, 37.5 × 49 cm, 14 ¾ × 19 ¼ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's (All Rights Reserved)

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after (?) Edward Dayes (1763-1804)
  • The Dover Mail, Dover Castle in the Distance
1791 - 1792
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour, pen and ink and scratching out on paper, on an original mount
37.5 × 49 cm, 14 ¾ × 19 ¼ in

‘JMWT’ lower left, scratched in by a later hand; ‘Dover Castle by Girtoin’ on the back, by (?) Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Work from a Known Source: Contemporary British
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Dover and Kent

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2008


John Ruskin (1819–1900) (mentioned in a lecture, 1871; lent to London, 1878); bequeathed to Arthur Severn (1842-1931); his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 20 May 1931, lot 108 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; bought by 'Walker', £48; Walker's Galleries, London; Henry Charles Green; his sale, Christie’s, 22 February 1952, lot 102 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; bought by Thos. Agnew & Sons, £78 15s; bought by Sir David Scott (1921–2006), £86 12s; his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 19 November 2008, lot 10 as by Thomas Girtin, £20,000

Exhibition History

London, 1878, no.1a as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; London, 1900, no.1 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; Walker’s Galleries, 1931, no.132 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; Walker’s Galleries, 1939, no.109 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; Walker’s Galleries, 1946, no.104 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner


Ruskin, 1878, pp.13–14 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; Ruskin, Works, vol.13, p.413, p.490; vol.22, p.31; Armstrong, 1902, p.249 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; Shanes, 2014, pp.4–9 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; Shanes, 2016a, pp.38–39 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner

About this Work

This distant view of Dover Castle from the south west, with a mail coach speeding towards it, is an early watercolour by Girtin, almost certainly made from a composition by his master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804). For much of its history, however, the work was said to be a fine early example of the work of Girtin’s great contemporary, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), whose initials were scratched into the paper at the bottom left at a later date. The work’s first known owner, the critic and amateur artist John Ruskin (1819–1900), wrote extensively on the watercolour, describing it as ‘a drawing of his [Turner’s] earliest boyhood’ and praising ‘the effect of the dust from the coach-wheels’ and the sky, which he saw as a perfect example of how to ‘lay a flat wash of watercolour’ (Ruskin, Works, vol.13, p.43). The attribution was challenged first in 2008 when a hitherto hidden inscription was found on the back of the drawing, ‘Dover Castle by Girtoin’. Efforts had been made to erase the name and it was suggested in the text of the auction catalogue that this had been done by the same early owner of the work who scratched the initials ‘JMWT’ onto the paper in an effort to increase its value.

The new attribution to Girtin certainly fits the visual evidence, which on many counts locates the work in the group of early watercolours made during the latter part of his apprenticeship to Dayes. The shape of the foliage, the twisting branches and the general forms of the leaves are clearly derived from Dayes’ example and they recur across works such as views of Rochester (TG0076) and the Lake District (TG0078), whilst the animated figures resemble those in another Rochester view (TG0071). The distant castle, evenly lit, flush with the picture plain and coloured within a strong outline, is also familiar from many of Girtin’s versions of Dayes’ topographical views. Even the sky, praised by Ruskin for its skilful execution typical of Turner, recalls the similar effects found in views of Hereford (TG0070) and Worcester (TG0077). Likewise, some of the work’s evident weaknesses, such as the way in which the carefully noted form of the castle jars in comparison with the different set of conventions employed in the foreground, recall the same immature effect seen in Girtin’s contemporary work Eton College, from the River (TG0013).

John Eastgate (c.1762–1834), after Edward Dayes (1763–1804), etching, 'Dover Castle', 28 April 1793, 19.7 × 30 cm, 7 ¾ × 11 ¾ in. Tate (T06387).

The change of attribution has not been universally welcomed, however, with the late Eric Shanes arguing at length for its return to Turner’s authorship (Shanes, 2014, pp.4–9; Shanes, 2016a, pp.38–39). Shanes pointed in particular to the use of rubbing out to create the effect of dust rising from the carriage wheels as characteristic of Turner’s practice, and he thought the lively, humorous figures were also more typical of Girtin’s contemporary. The use of rubbing out as a technique is indeed anomalous for Girtin, but on balance this is more than outweighed by the evident influence of his master, Dayes, not least in the choice of Dover Castle as the subject of the work. Rather than being a sketch at least begun on the spot, as Shanes suggested, the distant view of the castle in the watercolour bears all the signs of having been copied from another source. Moreover, although the precise prototype has not been found, Dayes made a number of distant views of the castle and its dramatic location (see figure 1), and he must be the most likely source for this view. In proposing a date of 1791–92 and reasserting the attribution to Girtin, I want to stress the importance of three distinct elements that are characteristic of the works executed during the artist’s apprenticeship: an imaginary foreground based on the conventions developed by Dayes to depict trees and vegetation; a topographical subject that was derived from the on-the-spot sketches of another artist; and a precocious technical ability that, in areas such as the sky and the dust clouds, creates natural effects that belie the early date of the work. The young Turner was certainly influenced by Dayes’ work, and the stylistic convergence between Turner and Girtin early in their careers continues to pose real problems of attribution. However, comparing The Dover Mail to other works produced during Girtin’s work in his master’s studio suggests that the inscription on the back of the watercolour was the artist’s own statement of authorship, albeit perhaps added later.

John Greig (c.1779–1861 or later), after Bartholomew Howlett (1767–1827), etching, 'Dover Castle, Kent' for <i>The Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet</i>, (?) 1807–(?) 1819, 7.5 × 14.8 cm, 3 × 5 ⅞ in. British Museum, London (1981,U.1066).

A further complicating factor emerged during the writing of this online catalogue in the form of an etching by John Greig (active 1800–1853) after Bartholomew Howlett (1767–1827) that clearly shows the same view of Dover Castle, albeit with variations in the forms of the vegetation and the staffage (see figure 2). Howlett, an artist of limited ability, is better known as the engraver and publisher of A Selection of Views in the County of Lincoln, to which Girtin contributed ten drawings (Howlett, 1805). Two possible explanations for the similarity suggest themselves. On the one hand, it is possible that Howlett had access to the same Dayes source used by Girtin and that he developed a different set of figures to flesh out the composition. On the other, could it be that Howlett, as an admirer of Girtin’s work, actually owned this watercolour and that his variation includes a simpler set of figures more in keeping with his artistic abilities. Of course, it could even be argued that Girtin’s source lay in a drawing by Howlett, though it is unlikely that the young artist would have had access to such material at this early stage of his career.

1792 - 1793

Rochester Cathedral and Castle, from the North East


1791 - 1792

Lake Windermere and Belle Isle


1791 - 1792

Rochester, from the North


1792 - 1793

Hereford Cathedral


(?) 1792

Worcester, from the River Severn



Eton College, from the River


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.