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Works Thomas Girtin

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1306: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), The Great Hall, Conwy Castle, 1798–99, graphite, watercolour and stopping out on laid paper, 48.9 × 40 cm, 19 ¼ × 15 ¾ in. Graves Gallery, Sheffield (816).

Photo courtesy of Museums Sheffield

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Great Hall, Conwy Castle
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and stopping out on laid paper
48.9 × 40 cm, 19 ¼ × 15 ¾ in

‘Girtin’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; North Wales

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle (TG1305)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
320ii as 'Conway Castle'; '1799'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


J. Palser & Sons; bought by James Leslie Wright (1862–1954), 25 February 1932 (lent to Birmingham, 1939); bought by the Fine Art Society, London, 1942, £126; bought from them by John George Graves (1866–1945), 1943; bequeathed to the Gallery, 1946

About this Work

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle

This fine watercolour showing the overgrown and ruined interior of the Great Hall of Conwy Castle is based on an on-the-spot colour sketch that Girtin made on his tour to North Wales in the summer of 1798 (TG1305). Whether the artist made his sketch with a commission for a view of the Great Hall already in hand is not known as we have no information about the watercolour’s early provenance. What is clear, though, is that although Girtin had portrayed Conway Castle from a number of angles prior to visiting the ruins himself in 1798 – having realised at least two different views of the castle from on-the-spot drawings made by his first patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99) (TG0107 and TG0141) – he did not have access to a sketch of the less obviously picturesque Great Hall. This is not entirely surprising since although the castle, with its plethora of towers and largely intact walls ‘rising sublimely above a noble estuary’, was popular with amateur and professional artists alike as it produced an ‘effect prodigiously grand’, the Great Hall itself does not appear to have been the subject of a significant watercolour before Girtin’s view, and many of the subsequent depictions, including etchings by George Cuitt the Younger (1779–1854) and a fine watercolour by Samuel Prout (1783–1852) (see figure 1), were made under his influence (Broster, 1802, p.141). What appears to be a pioneering view of the ruined hall may have been specified by a knowledgeable tourist, but it may equally have been a case of Girtin seeking out a different angle on a subject that was in danger of going stale through repetition.

All of this is in contrast to the tourist literature on North Wales that proliferated in the 1790s, which commonly described the Great Hall, ‘where the conquering Edward held his levies, and issued forth mandates to his new subjects’ (Anonymous, 1797a, p.95). Not all of these accounts were critical of Edward I (1239–1307) and his frankly imperial project in North Wales, and others, such as the author of a pedestrian tour through the region, the Revd Richard Warner (1763–1857), saw the building more in terms of the ‘Merrie England’ version of the Middle Ages, claiming that ‘on entering this noble room, the idea of ancient revelry instantly occurs to the mind, and imagination hurries back to those times’ (Warner, 1799, p.154). Girtin’s image may have evoked similar sentiments for contemporary viewers, but there is nothing in the work that might be seen as prompting anything more than a general sense of the transience of earthly glory, and it lacks the overt drama, if not melodrama, of Prout’s near contemporary moonlit view, which is more in keeping with the spirit of Matthew Lewis (1775–1818) and his play The Castle Spectre. Published in the same year that Girtin visited Conwy, the Gothic drama describes the ghostly figures that ‘abound in this melancholy mansion’, not least Lord Hildebrand, ‘condemned for treason’, who ‘may be seen in the Great Hall, regularly at midnight playing at foot-ball with his own head!’ (Lewis, 1798, pp.22–23). Girtin’s daylit view, in contrast, shows a conspicuously ordinary scene, with just two workmen with a ladder and a pickaxe clearing away the rubble from the ruins, with not a football in sight.

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle

The watercolour has faded somewhat and in consequence the browns and yellows are too dominant, but it is still an attractive work. From a technical point of view it is notable for its unusually extensive employment of stopping-out in the foreground, used as well for the bird in the centre, and even for the artist’s signature to the left. The use of a wax-based resist, which might be brushed in, washed over and then removed by gently heating to leave negative areas as highlights, is more commonly associated with Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) at this date, though it is employed in some of the other larger Welsh scenes, including The Cain Falls (TG1320) and The Ogwen Falls (TG1330).

A copy of this work is in the collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand, as by an unknown artist with the title Ruined Cathedral (see figure 2). The work was seen by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) when it was in the collection of Archdeacon Francis Smythe (1873–1966), and in his notes on the collection he stated that it was ‘done by a pupil working directly under Girtin in his studio, and being assisted by him’, and he thought that the sky was Girtin’s work (Girtin Archive, 27). Even working from an online image, the latter opinion appears somewhat far-fetched.

(?) 1798

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle


1792 - 1793

Conwy Castle, Looking West


1792 - 1793

Conwy Castle: The Bakehouse Tower


1798 - 1799

The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau


1798 - 1799

The Ogwen Falls


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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