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Works Thomas Girtin

The Gatehouse of Morpeth Castle

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1540: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Gatehouse of Morpeth Castle, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 22.2 × 31.4 cm, 8 ¾ × 12 ⅜ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1986.29.401).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Gatehouse of Morpeth Castle
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
22.2 × 31.4 cm, 8 ¾ × 12 ⅜ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; Gothic Architecture: Town and Domestic Fortifications; River Scenery

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001; Gallery Website


Sir John Charles Robinson (1824–1913); 'Old Castle' bought from him by Thos. Agnew & Sons (stock no.3588); bought by F. S. Dayman, 5 May 1902, £12 10s; 'Old Border Castle' bought from him by Thos. Agnew & Sons (stock no.4760); bought by F. A. Sturge, 7 December 1905, £25; ... Thos. Agnew & Sons, 1949, 'Border Tower' (stock no.5786); Lt. Commander Frederick Philip Hart (1879– after 1940); Thos. Agnew & Sons, 1962; bought from them by Paul Mellon (1907–99); presented to the Center, 1986

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1949, no.78 as ’A Border Tower’, £79


YCBA Online as 'A Border Tower' (Accessed 18/09/2022)

About this Work

This badly faded watercolour has previously been known only as A Border Tower, but the subject was identified during the preparation of this online catalogue as the gatehouse of Morpeth Castle, overlooking the river Wansbeck in Northumberland. The building was recognised from a print after a watercolour by Thomas Hearne (1744–1817) that was engraved for Antiquities of Great-Britain (see figure 1) (Hearne, 1786–1807). However, although Girtin copied a number of engravings from that publication, there are sufficient differences in this case to suggest that the work was made from an on-the-spot sketch by the artist, though it has not yet been traced. In particular, Girtin has moved his viewpoint to a lower position, which helps to transform what Hearne’s text describes as a tower of a ‘plain square form, and of no considerable magnitude’ into something altogether more imposing, in keeping with its fine defensive position. In fact, the gatehouse, which is all that remains of the castle, is set further back from the river, as can be seen from Joseph Mallord William Turner’s (1775–1851) slightly later view of Morpeth village (see figure 2), and Girtin has used a great deal of artistic licence to create a more dramatic setting for the building. The river does indeed bend to the north at this point, and I suspect that Girtin would have needed to visit the location in order to create what, in effect, is a composite view that marries two different scenes: one of the castle and the other of the river.

When that visit to this part of Northumberland occurred is not entirely clear, however. Logic says that Girtin’s northern tour in 1796, which took in a series of sites along the nearby coast, including Warkworth, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne, provided the best opportunity to visit, but the five watercolours that show views of Morpeth all date from 1800 or later, and although the artist did sometimes turn to earlier sketches, in general he used material that was fresh and current. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak thought that one of the Morpeth scenes that is dated 1800 (TG1706) was ‘done on the spot’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.182). Although this is very unlikely to be true, it may be that the artist did visit the site in that year, as he is documented as having travelled to the Scottish Borders, and a stop at the town might have broken a journey that probably began in Yorkshire (Jenkins, Notes, 1852).

Aside from the disorientating change to the building’s setting, the failure to identify Morpeth as the subject of this watercolour may also have had something to do with its very poor condition, which, even compared with some of the examples of fading seen in all too many of Girtin’s later works, is quite spectacular. Of the fifteen pigments Girtin is known to have used, at least four are very fugitive: a blue, indigo; two yellows, gamboge and brown pink; and a purple, brown lake (Pyne, 1823a, p.67).1 In this case, the probable use of those pigments in combination, and individually as thin washes, is enough to account for the loss of the blues and greys in the sky and all of the greens in the vegetation, and only the earth colour used for the stone of the tower has been left relatively unaffected. Such is the scale of the change that the underlying pencil work is now clearly visible across the sheet. There is no question, however, about the attribution of the watercolour, which is confirmed by the presence to the right-hand side of a drying fold in the paper. The artist’s well-known idiosyncratic willingness to incorporate the unsightly effect of the support’s handmade production clearly marks the work as by Girtin, just as much as his wholesale use of fugitive pigments.


Morpeth Bridge


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The account of the ‘Rise and Progress of Painting in Water Colours’ written by William Henry Pyne (1769–1843) includes a wealth of detail on Girtin’s career and working practice, much of which was the result of watching the artist. It is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1823 – Item 1).

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