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Works (?) Thomas Girtin

The Head of a Youth, Here Identified as Joseph Mallord William Turner

1794 - 1795

Primary Image: TG1904: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Head of a Youth, Here Identified as Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1794–95, graphite on wove paper, 14.3 × 12.8 cm, 5 ⅝ × 5 in. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (WA1912.4.2).

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

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Head of a Youth, Here Identified as Joseph Mallord William Turner
1794 - 1795
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
14.3 × 12.8 cm, 5 ⅝ × 5 in
Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Figure Study

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
484a as by Girtin 'Probably Sketched in Paris'; '1801-2'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


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); presented to the Museum, 1912


Brown, 1982, p.341, no.746

About this Work

Following the lead of Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, David Brown in his catalogue of the drawings in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, suggested that this intimate study of an unidentified youth was ‘almost certainly made in Paris’ during the artist’s stay across the winter and early spring of 1801–2 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.200; Brown, 1982, p.341). The drawing is mounted together with a sheet of figure studies that was indeed made in France (TG1900), but other than that, I can see no reason to think that it was not produced in Britain, though admittedly, no analysis of the paper appears to have been carried out, which might settle the issue. Indeed, one might equally ask what the evidence is that it was drawn by Girtin himself, other than the fact that the sheet is said to have come from the collection of the artist’s son, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74). Certainly, there is no equivalent elsewhere of Girtin sketching a figure subject from such close quarters that the artist could have reached out to touch the face. It is not even clear whether we are looking at a young man or a woman, though, in either case, it is difficult to identify the circumstances in which such a close encounter with the subject would have formed part of the working practice of a landscape artist other than at the home of Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), where a group of young professional artists, including Girtin, worked in close proximity in the evenings. Given all of this, I wonder whether the drawing might not be connected with a pen and ink portrait attributed to Henry Monro (1791–1814) (son of Thomas), which is said, highly implausibly given that he would have been a boy of no more than five or six at the time of the artist’s association with Monro, to represent Girtin himself (see TG1925 figure 2). The sketch depicts a similarly androgynous youth, and the use of line and hatching is also perhaps close enough to suggest that it might be by the same anonymous artist. If the work is not by Henry Monro, might it not also date from the 1790s? 

Another possibility, suggested to me by Ian Warrell in the course of a correspondence in 2020, raised the possibility that the drawing depicts Girtin’s contemporary colleague Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). Drawing attention to the facial resemblance between the sketch and a group of pencil studies of Turner made at the home of Monro around 1795–96 (including comparative images figure 1 and TG1925 figure 1), Warrell makes a convincing case that the slightly feminised dandy is a youthful image of the artist hard at work at the patron’s residence at the Adelphi, and that it is therefore close in appearance to the very early self-portrait that Turner painted in oils (see figure 2). Given that we know from the artists themselves that Girtin and Turner spent three years working together at Monro’s home, collaborating closely on the same copies of the outlines and sketches of John Robert Cozens (1752–97), Edward Dayes (1763–1804) and John Henderson (1764–1843), there is a further rationale behind the attractive idea that the author of this drawing was none other than Girtin himself, perched a few feet away from his subject (Farington, Diary, 12 November 1798). However, whilst admitting that the subject of the sketch could indeed be Turner, I am not completely won over by the idea of Girtin’s authorship. The fact that the drawing came from the collection of the artist’s son, Thomas Calvert, ultimately means little as he purchased the bulk of it on the art market and is only likely to have inherited a few items from his mother, Mary Ann Girtin (1781–1843), and his grandfather, Phineas Borrett (1756–1843). The stylistic evidence for a Girtin attribution is likewise promising but ultimately not totally compelling. The one signed portrait study we have by Girtin, an image that probably shows his father-in-law, Borrett (TG1517), does indeed contain passages of hatching that resemble the drawing here. At the same time, the only figure study for which there is clear evidence that it was drawn either by Girtin at Monro’s house or for the patron himself, Study of a Woman Sewing (TG0917), is arguably less evidently by the same artist, being more carefully outlined. Certainly, there is nothing in these comparisons and others to substantially undermine the case for Girtin’s authorship, but equally there is not the proof needed for an author made cautious by the seductive nature of the thought that what we might be looking at here is a portrait study of one great artist by another, and a unique record of a fascinating working collaboration at that. 

1801 - 1802

A Sheet of Figure Studies Relating to ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’


1798 - 1799

A Study of a Man, Said to Be the Artist George Barret the Younger


1795 - 1796

A Study of a Woman Sewing


by Greg Smith

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