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Works Thomas Girtin

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle

(?) 1798

Primary Image: TG1305: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Great Hall, Conwy Castle, (?) 1798, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 36.8 × 28.9 cm, 14 ½ × 11 ⅜ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.63).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Great Hall, Conwy Castle
(?) 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
36.8 × 28.9 cm, 14 ½ × 11 ⅜ in
Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; North Wales

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle (TG1306)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
320i as 'Conway Castle ... Unfinished'; '1799'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018


Chambers Hall (1786–1855); presented to the Museum, 1855

Exhibition History

London, 1934a, no.352; London, 1958d, section 62; London, 1972, no.321; Manchester, 1975, no.56; London, 1985, no.78; Cleveland, 1991, no.38; London, 2002, no.60 (image reversed); Stainton, 2005, pp6–7


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.37; Binyon, 1900, pl.9; Davies, 1924, pl.66 as 'Ruins of Conway Castle'; Kitson, 1937, p.21; Mayne, 1949, p.94; Williams, 1952, p.106; Bower, 2002, p.138; Carter, Lindfield and Townshend, 2017, pp.233–34

About this Work

This fine on-the-spot colour sketch of the interior of the Great Hall of Conwy Castle was executed on Girtin’s visit to North Wales in the summer of 1798, and it formed the basis for a larger studio watercolour (TG1306). Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak thought that it was an ‘Unfinished’ studio work, however, and dated it to 1799, but the cumulative evidence clearly points to it being coloured in the Great Hall itself (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.177). The way that Girtin, using a limited range of colours, has lost control over the watery washes in the foreground, in particular, indicates a work done in haste, as he tried to capture a light effect that left some parts of the ruins in shadow. More than anything, it is the way that the artist has concentrated his attention on selected areas that suggests a sketch made on the spot. The rubble and vegetation that fill the interior, as well as the nearest arch, are either barely hinted at or rendered as an inchoate mass of colour, and it is difficult to see how Girtin and Loshak thought that the former area, in particular, could subsequently be worked up into the sort of coherent spatial effect seen in the final watercolour. An unfinished studio work would also have areas left clear for the figures that invariably populate the foreground of the artist’s architectural views. The crucial point that distinguishes the sketch coloured on the spot from the studio watercolour, at whatever stage of its production, is that it does not have to create a credible space, just record how a specific light effect plays on different surfaces, and the evident speed of this work’s production suggests that this is indeed what we are looking at here.

All of this begs the question of whether Girtin went to the extra trouble of producing a sizeable colour sketch because he had already secured a commission for a subject prior to travelling to Wales. This would certainly be the logical conclusion in this case, but the evidence in general is not that strong, since only half of the colour sketches he executed on the trip were actually realised as studio watercolours. I suspect, therefore, that Girtin departed from his usual practice of making a pencil drawing only when a subject likely to attract an order was encountered in a suitable light or was accompanied by an appropriate weather effect. The resulting colour sketches would then both help in the production of the finished watercolour and provide a useful guide to prospective clients, who would get some idea of what their purchase might look like. The increase in the frequency of Girtin’s colour sketches was not simply a function of an aesthetic agenda shaped by naturalism, as has often been suggested, therefore, but was also closely linked to issues of production and consumption.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78), etching, 'Interno del Tempio d[ett]o di Canopo nella Villa Adriana' (View of the Interior of the Canopus at Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli) for <i>Vedute di Roma</i> (Views of Rome), 1760-1778, 45.5 × 58.5 cm, 17 ⅞ × 23 in. British Museum, London (1886,1124.75).

As with a number of sketches Girtin made on his trip to the north east in 1796 (such as TG1107), the composition of this view of Conwy Castle displays the influence of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78). In this case, an etching depicting a temple interior – actually a dining room – in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli (see figure 1) provided Girtin with a dramatic template for his view of the British ruins. The off-centre view and the use of a ruined arch as a repeating motif receding into the distance recall the work of the earlier master, whose prints Girtin copied on at least half a dozen occasions, primarily for his patron John Henderson (1764–1843) (such as TG0892).

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a laid cartridge paper by an unknown English manufacturer, worked on the artist’s favoured wireside, where the surface is impressed with the lines of the mould used in its manufacture (Smith, 2002b, p.86; Bower, Report). Bower has also pointed out that the sheet shows signs on the top, bottom and left edges of ‘Girtin having stretched his paper over a sketching board’, and this provides further evidence that the work was coloured on the spot (Bower, 2002, p.138). The artist used the same paper not just for his colour sketches, however; studio works including Richmond, Yorkshire: The Seventeenth-Century House Known as St Nicholas (TG1062) and The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey (TG1231) were created on the same support.

1798 - 1799

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle



An Interior View of the Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Church


1797 - 1798

The Bridge of Augustus at Rimini


1797 - 1798

Richmond, Yorkshire: The Seventeenth-Century House Known as St Nicholas


1796 - 1797

The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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