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Works Thomas Girtin

The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave


Primary Image: TG1256: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave, 1797, graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and pen and ink on wove paper, 44.5 × 61 cm, 17 ½ × 24 in. Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter (17/2020).

Photo courtesy of © Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and pen and ink on wove paper
44.5 × 61 cm, 17 ½ × 24 in

‘Girtin’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Exhibition Watercolour; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; The West Country: Devon and Dorset

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in April 2022


James Moore (1762–99); his widow, Mary Moore (née Howett) (d.1835); bequeathed to Anne Miller (1802–90) (lent to Manchester, 1857; London, 1875); bequeathed to Edward Mansel Miller (1829–1912); bequeathed to Helen Louisa Miller (1842–1915); Christie’s, 25 February 1916, lot 65; bought by 'Leggatt', £21; Leggatt Brothers, London; E. A. Selby; his sale, Christie's, 17 March 1944, lot 40; bought by the Fine Art Society, London, £162 15s; Sir Arthur Geoffrey Annesley Harmsworth, 3rd Baronet (1904–80); Chorley's, 18 March 2013, lot 140, £8,000; online auction: Christie's, 6-27 July 2020, lot 96, £15,000; bought by the Museum, 2020

Exhibition History

Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.538 as ’Inside of Exeter Cathedral’; Manchester, 1857, no.74; London, 1875, no.44


Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1803, p.187; Bell, 1915–17, pp.76–77; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.208; Thurmer, 1991, pp.210–15; Smith, 2017–18, p.35; Field, 2020, pp.66–67

About this Work

This view of the interior of Exeter Cathedral, looking east from the nave, was made for Girtin’s earliest patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99). The watercolour is one of the largest works that Girtin exhibited at the Royal Academy, where it was displayed in the Antique Academy in 1798, and there is further evidence that it held a particular importance for both artist and patron (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.538). Thus, after Girtin’s death, the Gentleman’s Magazine, in its obituary for the artist, talked at length about the significance of ‘Mr. Moore … his first patron’ and of the ‘drawing that Girtin made of Exeter Cathedral’ for him (Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1803, p.189). This, the anonymous writer continued, ‘was principally coloured on the spot’, and this surprising suggestion is backed up by the testimony of the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), who records that in early November 1797 he sent Girtin a ‘£5 note’ to Exeter to help cover the expenses of his tour, and this was followed later in the month by a further sum of 3s to ‘pay for porterage of the Sketch of Exeter Cathedral’ (Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804).1 Presumably, Moore was the recipient of the work, but why the patron did not pay for the ‘porterage’ himself is a mystery, as is the reason why it was so important to get the drawing back to London immediately, rather than waiting on Girtin’s return a few weeks later. But that is nothing compared to the startling idea that what at first sight appears to be one of Girtin’s most finished and carefully detailed studio works was actually at least begun on the spot, for that must be the logical conclusion from the independent testimonies of the obituary and John Girtin’s earlier record. It is just possible that another on-the-spot view of the interior of Exeter Cathedral existed, but the Moore collection is so well documented, from its inception through to its break-up at the beginning of the twentieth century, that this seems unlikely. It really does appear that the exhibited watercolour, the view ‘principally coloured on the spot’ and ‘the Sketch’ were the same work. From that it follows that Girtin’s visit to Exeter was centred around a very specific, and possibly unique, commission from Moore, and that this may even have been the catalyst for the whole West Country tour, though there is no evidence that any other work resulting from the trip entered the patron’s collection.

The idea that this, the largest of Girtin’s cathedral views, was at least partially worked on the spot is particularly striking because, compared with the other depiction of an interior of a major Gothic building – the view of St Albans Abbey shown at the Royal Academy in 1797 (TG1040), which was a studio watercolour – it includes a greater degree of detail and a more careful level of finish. Even though the watercolour has faded somewhat, and the highlights in white bodycolour have become too prominent, the extensive labour that went into recording the appearance of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century interior, and its later fittings, is readily apparent. Perhaps it was as a contrast to the rather ramshackle and gloomy interior of the older and less-cared-for interior of St Albans that Moore commissioned his view of Exeter, and it must surely have been the patron who stipulated that the textbook example of English Decorated Gothic style might best be captured by an extensive on-the-spot campaign. And, indeed, this enabled the artist to clearly differentiate between the building materials used in its construction, with the dark Purbeck marble employed for the columns showing out clearly against the lighter limestone of the arches and the vaults, all of which is recorded with a veracity that is hardly the hallmark of Girtin’s architectural views. The artist also clearly took a deal of trouble to ensure that the perspective was accurate. Over time a series of receding construction lines have become visible, particularly at the level of the triforium and on the columns where architectural details such as the flamboyantly sculpted corbels are carefully aligned to create a convincing sense of depth. There is a nice irony, therefore, in the fact that, just as the 1797 tour marked an expansion in the artist’s practice of colouring sketches in the field to secure records of nature’s changing effects, he also worked on the spot inside Exeter Cathedral at the behest of an older-style patron whose primary interest in matters antiquarian meant that what he wanted above all from his artist was an accurate record of a building. Clearly the figures, which play such a significant role in the comparable view of St Albans, held little interest for Moore and they were presumably added after the work had been developed to a near level of completion on the spot as the background shows through the costume at a number of points.

The Chapter at Exeter owns a similar view of the interior of the cathedral seen from the nave that was donated by a local artist, James Leakey (1775–1865). The watercolour, which again shows the seventeenth-century box pews and pulpit, removed in the nineteenth century, has been attributed to Girtin, presumably as a second version of the Royal Academy view. However, it differs from the exhibited work in details such as the figures, and it actually adopts a slightly different view, showing more of the stalls and the arcade to the left, and the font is seen closer to the right. My initial thought that this was not a copy of Girtin’s work but an original composition has proved to be correct, but as Sam Smiles has pointed out (email dated 9 November 2022) the author of the work was not, as I initially suspected, the donor himself, but the architectural draughtsman Frederick Nash (1782–1856). Smiles points to the print in etching and aquatint by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748–1804) published 30 May 1803 and suggests that the watercolour owned by the Chapter was probably that exhibited by Nash in 1803 at the Royal Academy (no.602).


The Interior of St Albans Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Details are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1804 – Item 1).

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