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.