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Works Thomas Girtin

The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1309: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle, 1798–99, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 29.4 × 44 cm, 11 ⅝ × 17 ⅜ in. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (NMW A 3368).

Photo courtesy of National Museum Wales (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: William Bernard Cooke (1778–1855), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), etching and engraving, 'Caernarvon Castle, North Wales', 4 June 1821, 23 × 30.2 cm, 9 × 8 in. British Museum, London (1956,1018.102).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
29.4 × 44 cm, 11 ⅝ × 17 ⅜ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; North Wales

The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle (TG1310)
The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle (TG1311)
The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle (TG1312)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
321i as 'Caernarvon Castle'; '1799'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and June 2018


Henry Edridge (1768–1821) (recorded on 1817 engraving); William Wells of Redleaf (1768–1847); his postumous sale, Christie’s, 22 January 1857, lot 302; bought by 'Bale', £29 8s; Charles Sackville Bale (1791–1880) (lent to London, 1875); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 13 May 1881, lot 98; bought by 'Palser', £98 14s; J. Palser & Sons; bought by Edward Cohen (1816–87), 1881; then by bequest to his niece, Isabella Oswald (1838–1905); her posthumous sale, Robins & Hine, 30 March 1905, lot unknown; bought by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960), 27 gns (plus part of a payment of £50 to 'Palser' for 'standing aside'); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought from him by the museum, 1970

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.50; London, 1912, no.39; London, 1906, no.92; Grafton Galleries, London, 1911, no.180; Cambridge, 1920, no.25; Agnew’s, 1931, no.133; London, 1934b, no.906; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.38; Leeds, 1958, no.47; London, 1962a, no.154; Reading, 1969, no.46; Manchester, 1975, no.57; Gifu, 1998, no.60; London, 2002, no.61 as ’The Eagle Tower, Caernarvon Castle, North Wales’; Bath, 2003, no.30; American Tour, 2014-15, no.9


Lytton, 1911, no.11; Gibson, 1916, p.218; Finberg, 1919, p.14; Grundy, 1921b, pp.67–68; Davies, 1924, pl.61; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.68, p.88

About this Work

This is one of four versions of a composition that shows Caernarfon Castle and the Eagle Tower from the north west, looking across the river Seoint (the others being TG1310, TG1311 and TG1312). The watercolours, depicting Edward I’s (1239–1307) great thirteenth-century fortress, were presumably based on a drawing made by Girtin on his 1798 tour of North Wales, though the original sketch does not appear to have survived. The view was very popular with artists, amateur and professional alike. In choosing to portray the castle from this angle, with part of the town walls to the left, the mountains in the distance and a busy shipping scene in the foreground, Girtin followed in the footsteps of Paul Sandby (c.1730–1809) and Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733–94), whilst the artist’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) made a very similar sketch just a few weeks after Girtin’s visit, probably sometime in August 1798 (see TG1310 figure 1). According to one of the many tourists who visited Caernarfon at this time, Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758–1838), this particular view provided ‘a glorious study for the artist’s portfolio’, since it was ‘truly picturesque’ on account of the ‘lively bustling scene’ of the port. The Eagle Tower, the scene of the birth of the first English Prince of Wales, may have been the ‘chief object of attraction’ for Hoare, but his preoccupation was primarily with the visual qualities of the site, unlike so many of his contemporaries, for whom the scene often sparked lengthy moral digressions (quoted in Thompson, 1983, p.263). These commonly took the form of criticism of Edward I’s despotic behaviour, and the castle itself was identified as a monument to ‘tyranny … calculated to keep the surrounding districts in awe and subjection’ (Hucks, 1795, p.91), whilst the king’s campaign in North Wales was said to be conducted at the expense of ‘Cambrian Independence and Cambrian Liberty’ (Evans, 1804, p.174). The Revd Richard Warner (1763–1857) echoed this sentiment, but, as he noted, the fine preservation of the castle ‘does not produce those lively emotions in the mind’ (Warner, 1799, p.139). The point is significant because Girtin would probably have known Warner’s text since his view of Tintern Abbey was used as the book’s frontispiece (see print after TG0058), and he may have shared its political sentiments, but, nonetheless, he did not feel able to develop a historical, associative reading of the scene any more than Sandby had done a generation earlier.

None of the four versions of this composition are dated, but that did not stop the authors of the first catalogue of Girtin’s watercolours, Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, from citing it as ‘representative’ of his style in 1799, commenting on the ‘golden glow’, derived, they thought, from seventeenth-century masters, which they claimed ‘appears exclusively’ in that year (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.68). I suspect that the work dates from a little later and that the ‘golden glow’ is just the result of the artist’s use of a more stable yellow pigment, which shows up against the faded areas of the hills and the water, but I am not convinced in any case that such close dating is either possible or appropriate. Aside from their size, all the watercolours are extremely close, marked only by small differences in the shipping and figures and minor variations in the skies, and I suspect that the Girtin and Loshak’s efforts to establish the primary status of this version stemmed from a failure of objectivity – the work was then in the possession of the Girtin family. A similarly eccentric suggestion, that the composition was influenced by the great Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1609–69), may have been motivated by the same desire to inflate the significance of a good, but not exceptional, work (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.88). Rembrandt’s painting The Mill (see TG1451 figure 1) was indeed in England in the 1790s and it may even have influenced grander later works, such as Bridgnorth (TG1755), but surely not so in this case.

The earliest known owner of the watercolour was the artist Henry Edridge (1768–1821), who in 1817 lent it to William Bernard Cooke (1778–1855) to engrave (see the print after, above). Edridge, who both painted a miniature of the young Girtin (TG1928) and made a more informal sketch of the artist drawing from nature (TG1923), presumably acquired the work directly from the artist. The engraving is notable, therefore, not just as one of the first reproductions of Girtin’s watercolours after his death but also as evidence of the support that the artist received from his fellow professionals. The print was eventually published in 1821, when it was dedicated to ‘Lady Long a Patroness of the Fine Arts’, referring to Amelia Long, Lady Farnborough (1772–1837).

1798 - 1799

The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle


1798 - 1799

The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle


1798 - 1799

The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle


1791 - 1792

Tintern Abbey, from the River Wye





(?) 1796

Portrait Miniature of Thomas Girtin


(?) 1801

Thomas Girtin Sketching


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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