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Works Thomas Girtin

The Gateway, St Albans Abbey

(?) 1796

Primary Image: TG1034: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Gateway, St Albans Abbey, (?) 1796 and (?) 1800, graphite on wove paper, 15 × 23.1 cm, 5 ⅞ × 9 in. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (WA1934.135).

Photo courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Gateway, St Albans Abbey
(?) 1796
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
15 × 23.1 cm, 5 ⅞ × 9 in

‘Girtin’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin; ‘Gateway Saint Albans’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Gothic Architecture: Town and Domestic Fortifications; Hertfordshire

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
415 as 'St. Alban's, The Abbey Gate-House'; '1800–1'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2016


Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911); then by a settlement to his sister, Mary Hog Barnard (née Girtin) (1828–99); then by descent to Francis Pierrepont Barnard (1854–1931); his widow, Isabella Barnard; bequeathed to the Museum, 1934


Brown, 1982, p.340, no.741

About this Work

Girtin visited St Albans around 1796, when, as preparation for a major watercolour depicting the interior of the abbey church that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797 (TG1040), he made a number of pencil sketches, including a similar view of the west porch of the abbey (TG1035). However, whilst Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak dated that drawing to 1797, they listed this view of the gateway to as dating from 1800–1801 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.191). This suggestion was followed by David Brown in his catalogue of the collection of British drawings in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Noting the way in which the artist ‘retouched’ the signature in the lower left corner, employing a darker tone of graphite over a much fainter ‘Girtin’, Brown added that it was not just the signature that had been ‘reworked with a stronger line’ but that the image as a whole was the result of adding to ‘a drawing of some five years earlier’ (Brown, 1982, p.340). Initially, I was sceptical about this idea, as there are no precedents for Girtin systematically reworking a sketch, but comparing the drawing with the more even-toned view of the west porch, which appears to have been produced around 1796, suggests that Girtin did indeed revisit the drawing, adding a series of darker highlights with a richer-toned piece of graphite. Something akin to the rather bland architectural record seen in the earlier drawing of the west porch was consequently transformed into a more showy piece of draughtsmanship, a commodity that might appeal to collectors of the artist’s works. The way the artist reinforced the strength of the signature is both evidence of the transformation process and a sign of the shift in the function of the drawing, therefore: from a record of an architectural subject, which might be used as the basis for a watercolour, to an example of the artist’s skills aimed at patrons who sought out examples of his sketching practice and for whom a signature was an essential component. And it was presumably at this stage that the artist added the female figure to the right, with a line depicting the ground showing through her clothes as further evidence of the process of reworking an earlier drawing.

The same drawing rotated and cropped to follow Girtin's markings

Despite the artist’s efforts, the drawing does not appear to have found a purchaser as it appears, according to family tradition, to have come from the collection of Girtin’s son, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74), and it is presumed that he inherited it from amongst works left in the artist’s possession after his death. The problem may have resulted because of Girtin’s choice of a rather obscure subject, part of the northern facade of the late fourteenth-century gateway to the abbey. Unusually for Girtin, the artist inscribed a note identifying the building, and without this it is unlikely that we would have recognised it as St Albans, not least as the gateway’s most distinctive feature, its use of flint, is not indicated in the drawing in any way. Potential purchasers may also have been put off by the way in which the drawing has ruled lines on all four sides, perhaps indicating that Girtin wished to rotate the drawing slightly and trim the composition. Using basic image-editing software, it is possible to do just that, and the results show a definite improvement in terms of the focus of the composition (see figure 1), prompting the thought that Girtin actually undertook to enhance his earlier sketch for his own purposes and that perhaps he had in mind to transfer his drawing himself, perhaps as a soft-ground etching. It is a bit of a long shot, but the sketch of St Albans has something of the show-off quality of the pencil drawing of An Inn Yard, Edgware Road, Paddington (TG1747), which has plausibly been identified as being produced for reproduction in a drawing manual. The reason for transforming the pencil drawing would still have been to illustrate the artist’s skill as a draughtsman, but perhaps this was intended to be communicated through a publication rather than a sale on the open market, therefore.

The only other view of the medieval gateway at St Albans that I have been able to trace, a watercolour of 1795 by Thomas Hearne (1744–1817) taken from exactly the same position (Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2932–1876)), suggests the reason for Girtin’s unusual and partial view of the structure. A large part of the structure was obscured by a tree and the stonework shown by Girtin is therefore the only area that was visible to the artist.


The Interior of St Albans Abbey


(?) 1796

St Albans Abbey: The West Porch



An Inn Yard, Edgware Road, Paddington


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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