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Works Thomas Girtin

The Guildhall, Exeter

(?) 1797

Primary Image: TG1255: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Guildhall, Exeter, (?) 1797, graphite on wove paper, 20.8 × 25.7 cm, 8 ³⁄₁₆ × 10 ⅛ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1184).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Guildhall, Exeter
(?) 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
20.8 × 25.7 cm, 8 ³⁄₁₆ × 10 ⅛ in

‘Guild Hall Exeter’ on the back, by (?) Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


William Alexander (1767–1816); his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 11 March 1817, lot 832 as 'Ripon Minster - Guildhall, Exeter, etc - 6', £2 2s; John Hayes; possibly his sale, Sotheby's, 30 May 1820, lot 116 as 'Sketches of Views … Guildhall at Exeter' by Thomas Girtin; ... Dominic Colnaghi (1790–1879); his posthumous sale, Christie's, 1 April 1879, lot 21; bought by 'Palser', 9s; J. Palser & Sons; bought by George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911), 1879; then by descent to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

Cambridge, 1920, no.50; London, 1962a, no.127; Reading, 1969, no.75; New Haven, 1986a, no.54; London, 2002, no.90


Sparrow, 1902, p.84

About this Work

This impressive record of the late sixteenth-century Guildhall in the High Street in Exeter was drawn on Girtin’s West Country tour in the autumn of 1797. The artist is documented as having been in Exeter in early November, to which the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), sent him a ‘£5 note’ to help cover the expenses of his tour, and this was followed by a further sum of ‘3s’ to ‘pay for porterage of the Sketch of Exeter Cathedral’ (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804).1 This presumably related to the interior view of the cathedral that Girtin painted for his earliest patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99), and that appeared at the following year’s Royal Academy exhibition (TG1256). It seems, therefore, that the trip to Exeter, and indeed the whole of the West Country tour, was at least partly underwritten by a commission from Moore, though the patron does not seem to have owned any other subject derived from the trip, which might account for why Girtin was so short of money. The ornate front of the Guildhall is just the sort of building that Moore might have been expected to order an image of from his protégé, and the careful way that Girtin recorded the architectural details suggests that he may have hoped for a commission, though there is no evidence that a finished watercolour ever resulted. The presence of a wide range of figures, an unusual feature for a Girtin sketch of an architectural subject, might even be explained as a way of showing a potential purchaser of a watercolour how the building would appear as part of a lively street scene. And this, in turn, is a useful reminder that whilst the primary function of an outline drawing is to note topographical information, it also invariably establishes the final composition in broad terms; the two aspects of recording and composing are therefore inextricably linked in Girtin’s practice.

A ‘Guildhall, Exeter’ was one of the subjects itemised in the total of 128 works by Girtin that appeared in the posthumous sale of his friend and fellow artist William Alexander (1767–1816) (Exhibitions: Sotheby’s, 10 March 1817, lot 832). Selling for as little as a shilling each, the works must have been pencil drawings like this example. The number of drawings in Alexander’s possession is close to the total that are known to exist today, and this fact in itself suggests that many if not the majority of Girtin’s pencil sketches remain untraced. This conclusion is given more weight if we bear in mind that only a small percentage of the surviving drawings relate to finished compositions; where are the preparatory materials for the interior view of Exeter Cathedral, for instance? Some may have been destroyed, but many more are presumably unrecognised or attributed to other artists.


The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The records are transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1804 – Item 1).

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