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Works Thomas Girtin

The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

1799 - 1800

Primary Image: TG1504: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 1799–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 32 × 46.5 cm, 12 ⅝ × 18 ¼ in. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, Thaw Collection (1996.147).

Photo courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
1799 - 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
32 × 46.5 cm, 12 ⅝ × 18 ¼ in

‘Girtin / Drawn in the House of R.K.P. / 1800’ on the back, by Richard Ker Porter; 'T.C.G.' on the back, lower right, by Thomas Calvert Girtin

Object Type
Sketching Society Drawing
Subject Terms
Hills and Mountains

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911); then by a settlement to his sister, Julia Hog Cooper (née Girtin) (1839–1904); her sale, Davis, Castleton, Sherborne, 2 December 1884, lot 43 as 'Volcanic Mountain'; B. de le Bullock; his sale, Sotheby’s, 20 July 1978, lot 171 as 'A Volcano Erupting', £500; Christopher Norris; his sale, Sotheby’s, 19 November 1987, lot 71, £18,700; Thos. Agnew & Sons; Eugene Victor Thaw (1927–2018); presented to the Library, 1996

Exhibition History

New Haven, 1986a, not in the catalogue; New York, 1992, no.48; New York, 1994, no.57; New York, 1996, no.51; New York, 1998, no.75


Morris, 1986, p.20; Brooke, 2002, pp.216–17

About this Work

This imaginary view by Girtin of a volcano erupting appears to have been painted at a meeting of the Sketching Society. According to an inscription in the Society’s Minute Book, the subject set by Robert Ker Porter (1777–1842) on the evening of 2 November 1799 was ‘Mount Vesuv’, though the poetic passage and the identity of its author were not specified (Sketching Society, Minute Book).1

There are two possible poetic sources amongst the works of the most popular authors with the Society’s members, James Thomson (1700–48) and the Revd Thomas Gisborne (1758–1846). Thomson’s Liberty; A Poem contains the lines:

By black Vesuvius thundering o’er the coast
His midnight earthquakes, and his mining fires. (Part I, ll.280–81)

whilst the description of autumn in Gisborne’s Walks in a Forest includes a long evocation of the eruption of Mount Etna as detailed by Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803):

                               ... behold the electric flash oblique
Break through the darkness; view the exploded rocks
Trail their long light; prone down the mountain’s side (Gisborne, 1799, pp. 66–67)

The drawings by the other five members who attended the meeting, 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, François Louis Thomas Francia (1772–1839), Paul Sandby Munn (1773–1845) and George Samuel (active 1785–1823), do not appear to have survived, and it is not therefore clear which poet provided the inspiration for Girtin’s work, though the fact that Thomson specifies Vesuvius as his subject tilts the balance in that direction.

The lack of comparative material compounds other uncertainties about the status of Girtin’s monochrome study. These centre on the fact that the back of the drawing has been inscribed ‘Girtin Drawn in the House of R. K. P. 1800’, presumably by Porter, who, as the host for the evening, would have kept all of the drawings that were produced. It is of course possible that he simply misremembered the date, and the inscription may have been added much later (three groups of Sketching Society subjects were included in his posthumous sale (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 30 March 1843, lots 120–22)), but the inscription reawakens a nagging concern that the drawing is too big and just too carefully worked to have been the product of just the three hours that were allowed to members to complete their work. The watercolour may only be in monochrome, but its effect is built up from multiple layers of wash, each of which would have had to dry before work recommenced. Additionally, other areas left untouched to create highlights would have taken too much time and required to much planning and foresight to have been produced in one session. Thus, as with a number of ‘sketches’ that appear to have been worked in the field, but that contain so much labour that they must have been studio works, I suspect either that this drawing is a later reworking of a sketch begun at Porter’s home in 1799 or that Girtin began afresh and made a new composition based on his original sketch. If the latter was the case, then it was presumably at this point that the artist developed details such as the lighthouse and the twin domes of the church on the coast, which suggest that he might even have checked his earlier works for evidence of the topography of the Neapolitan coastline (such as TG0653).

1794 - 1797

Naples: Looking across the Bay towards Vesuvius, from Mergellina


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 Details of the Society’s Laws, the names of attendees, and excerpts from the selected poems are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1799 – Item 5).

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