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Works Thomas Girtin

The Estuary of the River Taw

(?) 1797

Primary Image: TG1281: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Estuary of the River Taw, (?) 1797, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 28.3 × 44.4 cm, 11 ⅛ × 17 ½ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1024).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Estuary of the River Taw
(?) 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
28.3 × 44.4 cm, 11 ⅛ × 17 ½ in
Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; The View from Above; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
427 as 'Unidentified Estuary, Probably near Sandsend, Yorks'; 'Water-Colour Sketch'; '1801'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

London, 1862, no.888 as ’View in Yorkshire, unfinished’; Cambridge, 1920, no.38 as ’Porlock (?)’; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.37 as ’An Unidentified Estuary, Probably near Sandsend’; Sheffield, 1953, no.55; Leeds, 1958, no.52; London, 1962a, no.150 as ’Unidentified Estuary’; Manchester, 1975, no.80 as ’Unidentified Estuary: possibly near Sandsend on the Yorkshire coast’; New Haven, 1977, no.116; New Haven, 1982, II.5. as ’An Unidentified Estuary ... c.1797’; New Haven, 1986a, no.87 as ’Estuary of the River Taw, Devon c.1801’; London, 2002, no.109; Richmond, Virginia, 2007, no.40 as 'Estuary on the River Taw, Devon'


Gibson, 1916, p.219 as 'Porlock'; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.83; Kitson, 1986, pp.8–9; Morris, 1986, pp.22–23, p.87; Morris, 1987a, p.55, p.61; Fleming-Williams, 1990, p.78; Morris, 1990, p.59; Meyer, 1995, p.85; Smiles and Pidgley, 1995, p.29; Hargraves, 2007, p.95

About this Work

This fine on-the-spot colour sketch, which has been identified as showing the view south west over Braunton Marsh to the estuary of the river Taw, in north Devon, was made on the return leg of Girtin’s tour of the West Country in the autumn of 1797. The location of the view had variously been described as ‘Porlock’, ‘Sandsend’ in North Yorkshire or more often than not ‘An Unidentified Estuary’ until Susan Morris published her contention that Girtin’s viewpoint was on the road between Heanton Punchardon and Braunton from where ‘Fremington church' is visible 'at the far left’ and ‘in the distance to the right is Barnstable Bay and the headland upon which Appledore stands’ (Morris, 1986, p.46).1 Although this is highly plausible, more recently Matthew Hargraves has suggested that the work probably represents a view over what is now the resort of Westwood Ho!, and I must say I have some sympathy with the idea that the scene is to be found further west along the coast beyong the Taw estuary, not least because we now know that Girtin was staying in the nearby town of Bideford in November 1797, a fact unknown to earlier Girtin scholars (Hargraves, 2007, p.95). However, the point, as Hargraves rightly notes, is that Girtin was not interested in recording every detail of the site precisely, and the more generalised landscape that emerges from his sketch prioritises the patterns and shapes made by the interaction of land, vegetation and water over any precise topographical information. This, and the fact that Girtin seems to have been the first professional artist to visit what is a relatively featureless area, means that it is hardly surprising that the location of the view should have remained unknown for so long, and that it continues to be a source of conjecture.

The date that Girtin painted his on-the-spot sketch has also sparked debate. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, thinking that the view was sketched on the Yorkshire coast, dated it to 1801, whilst Susan Morris argued that stylistically the work is ‘too sophisticated’ for 1797 and that it was therefore executed on a ‘second West Country tour made in 1800 or 1801’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.83; Morris, 1986, p.22). However, we now know that the artist was definitely in this area in November 1797 as his brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), records that he sent him ‘a £5 note to Biddeford’ on the twenty-first of the month (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804). This in itself does not prove that the sketch was made in 1797, of course; however, given that Bideford is only a few kilometres away from either of the sites propsed for the view, it means that a later visit would have amounted to an implausible return trip. In any case, I do not accept Morris’ contention that the sketch is ‘too sophisticated’, as it seems eminently comparable to the on-the-spot colour study The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below (TG1250). That work was used as the basis for a studio watercolour that appears to have been shown at the Royal Academy in 1798 (TG1251), and it therefore sets a standard against which to measure other on-the-spot views from this period.

The one aspect of the drawing that has not been a subject of dispute is its status as an on-the-spot coloured sketch, even though there is no evidence that a studio watercolour was ever made from it. Signs that the work was coloured on the spot include the absence of a sky, a featureless foreground with signs of blotting caused by an excess of water, a number of random splashes of colour across the paper and a very limited range of tints. Above all, there is a sense that the work was executed at speed and with an economy of means, such that one can imaginatively recreate its production, brushstroke by brushstroke.

(?) 1797

The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below


1797 - 1798

The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The Girtin Archive, 35 contains a photograph taken by Tom Girtin (1913–94) of what he thought was Girtin's view with a note that it was 'taken from somewhere near Fremington or possibly Chivenor. Hartland Point - on the right of the drawing would then be in the correct relationship to the nearer headland which I take to be Appledore’.

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