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Works Thomas Girtin

The Interior of St Albans Abbey


Primary Image: TG1040: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Interior of St Albans Abbey, 1796, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 54.8 × 42 cm, 21 ½ × 16 ½ in. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery (FAW 533).

Photo courtesy of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Interior of St Albans Abbey
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
54.8 × 42 cm, 21 ⅝ × 16 ½ in

‘Thos Girtin -96’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Exhibition Watercolour; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; Hertfordshire

An Interior View of St Albans Abbey, from the Crossing (TG1039)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
136ii as 'St. Alban's Cathedral'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


Charles Hampden Turner (1772-1856); Christie’s, 9 June 1873, lot 204 as 'Interior of Winchester Cathedral "1796"’; bought by 'Noseda', £72 9s; bought by Edward Cohen (1817–86), £84 (lent to London, 1875); then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); Thos. Agnew & Sons, 1931 (stock no.1226); Lt-Col Kenneth Morland Agnew (1886–1951); his sale, Sotheby's, 25 November 1942, lot 9a; bought by the Fine Art Society, London, £350; Edwin Leach Hartley (1864–1954); bequeathed to the Museum, 1954

Exhibition History

Royal Academy, London, 1797, no.428 as ’Inside of St. Alban’s Cathedral Church’; London, 1875, no.98 as ’Interior of Winchester Cathedral’ and wrongly dated ’1795’; Agnew’s, 1931, no.122 as ’Interior of St Alban’s Cathedral’; Agnew’s, 1936, no.91; Agnew’s, 1939, no.153; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.72; London, 2002, no.48


The Builder, 5 June 1875; London News, 7 February 1953

About this Work

This view of the choir of St Albans Abbey, viewed from the crossing, is one of only a handful of church interiors painted by Girtin. Though a slightly larger version of the composition, taken from a marginally different angle, also exists; this is now thought to be an earlier work made after a sketch by Girtin’s master Edward Dayes (1763–1804) (TG1039). Girtin exhibited a watercolour with the title ‘Inside of St. Alban’s Cathedral Church’ at the Royal Academy in 1797, and, given its imposing scale, the careful execution of an unusually wide range of figures and the fact that it is dated, it is likely to have been this work that was shown (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1797, no.428). Girtin’s title is one of a number of puzzling features about this drawing. St Albans only acquired its cathedral status later in the nineteenth century, and in the 1790s it was a pale shadow of its medieval glory. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, the abbey lost many of its greatest treasures, and the building was acquired by the townspeople, who fitted up the area from the crossing tower to the high altar screen as a parish church, leaving the rest of the structure to deteriorate. Girtin’s view therefore records not only the great medieval church but also the heterogeneous mix of its later furnishings, which subsequent restorations have swept away, including the wooden pews and panelling, the flamboyant Baroque pulpit, and Sir James Thornhill’s (1675/76–1734) painting The Last Supper, which then adorned the high altar. A comparison with Girtin’s other major watercolour of an important church interior, a view of Exeter Cathedral that was commissioned by James Moore (1762–99) (TG1256), points up the unconventional nature of this earlier image. Thus, whilst the Exeter view carefully records the architectural glories of the great Gothic monument, this watercolour not only concentrates on the modern church fittings but also gives a significant role to the figures attending the service. The attention of the very sparse congregation has in many cases wandered and, rather disarmingly, at least two have turned their attention towards the viewer, and one cannot help but speculate about the interaction between the various component groups of figures. However inappropriate it might have been in a watercolour destined for the walls of the Academy’s annual exhibition, it seems that Girtin added a narrative element to this record of the interior of the church, and it is hard not to believe that this was in some way critical of the state of the Church as an institution.

This particular watercolour did not attract any attention either positive or negative, however, when it appeared at the Academy, though one critic did note that in general the ‘Artist is careless in the detail and finishing’ (St. James’s Chronicle, 20 – 23 May 1797). None of Girtin’s ten exhibits that year were marked as being for sale, and it is likely that his view of St Albans was a commission and that its unconventional imagery therefore reflected the interests of someone for whom the church had personal associations. Nothing is known about the early provenance of the watercolour, though we can form a reasonable estimate of its cost to the unknown patron. The Academician and diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821) noted that Girtin’s drawings at the smaller size of ‘18 Inches’, such as The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey (TG1231) sold for ‘4 guineas’ (Farington, Diary, 4 June 1797). The Interior of St Albans Abbey is larger and more carefully worked, and its cost was no doubt further inflated by the need for Girtin to travel to the city to make detailed sketches from which to execute the watercolour since, as in the case of the view of Exeter, it is unlikely that he painted his view from the work of another artist. Indeed, a drawing titled ‘Choir, St Alban’s Abbey’ was recorded in an early sale of the artist’s work (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 18 April 1836, lot 177), though it has not been traced, whilst two other pencil sketches of the abbey (TG1035 and TG1037) and the gatehouse (TG1034) are catalogued here.

Interior of St Albans Abbey

A watercolour with the title ‘Interior of St. Albans’ was sold at the artist’s posthumous sale for £6 (Exhibitions: Christie’s, 1 June 1803, lot 123). This seems to be too little for such an important watercolour as this, but there is a possibility that it was this work and that it therefore had remained in the artist’s hands unsold. It would be very satisfying to discover that the idiosyncratic cast of figures noted above had caused problems between artist and patron, but without further evidence, which indeed is perhaps unlikely to emerge, that must remain a wholly unsubstantiated speculation.

Girtin’s imposing watercolour, now held at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, was the subject of two full-scale copies, one of which at least has a claim to be a replica by the artist himself, despite its long-standing attribution to Edward Dayes (1763–1804) (see figure 1). That watercolour copy, now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has the same dimensions, repeats the same complex groups of figures and, as the process of overlaying images of the two works demonstrates, replicates the composition exactly. The congruence between the two images is such that were it not for the fact that the watercolour in Blackburn is signed and dated – suggesting strongly that it is the work that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797 – it would by no means be clear which is the ‘original’. Arguably, the drawing at Boston is less thickly worked, which at this early stage in the research on the watercolour seems to confirm that it is Girtin’s second version of the drawing, in which case he may have received a commission following the exhibition of the Blackburn work in 1797. A certain economy in its production is to my eye the only thing to distinguish the two watercolours, and I suspect that it should join the significant list of examples of Girtin producing close replicas of his own works, including Wetherby: Looking through the Bridge to the Mills (TG1643 and TG1644) and Paris: The Ruins of the Roman Baths, Hôtel de Cluny (TG1896 and TG1897).1

The Interior of St Albans Abbey

The third version of Girtin’s view of the interior of the abbey has hitherto been known to me only from a very poor image that was unsuitable for use on this site and my conclusion that it was a copy by an unknown artist was therefore only a tentative one. The recent opportunity to view the work is therefore much appreciated (see figure 2).2 As with the work in Boston, this watercolour has the same measurements as the signed and dated Royal Academy exhibit, though this is difficult to substantiate because a later mount appears to cut small sections at the top and the bottom presumably to hide damage to the sheet. It is highly likely, however, that all three versions are on the same generous scale, particularly as overlaying an image of this work with the watercolour in Blackburn again shows a startling degree of congruence. This, taken together with the work’s good condition, means that we have to look again seriously at the possibility that it too was painted by Girtin as a replica of his own composition. Against this one can point to weaknesses in the painting of the figures and to their crude profiles in particular, as well as a less fluent use of the pen to pick out details of the architecture and the woodwork. But at worst we are looking at a highly competent copy produced by a professional artist with well-developed skills as an architectural draughtsman. Perhaps the most curious aspect to all of this is why it was that as many as three substantial views of the abbey in its guise as a converted parish church were produced at this inauspicious point in the building’s history. And given that it is inconceivable that Girtin would have painted even one large view of St Albans without a commission this means we are looking for an equal number of people who had a strong interest in the building and its use and preservation. Hopefully, further research might reveal the names of Girtin’s customers and that this in turn will help with the attribution of the versions in Boston and St Albans.3

1791 - 1792

An Interior View of St Albans Abbey, from the Crossing



The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave


1796 - 1797

The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey


(?) 1796

St Albans Abbey: The West Porch


(?) 1796

St Albans Abbey, from the East


(?) 1796

The Gateway, St Albans Abbey


(?) 1800

Wetherby: Looking through the Bridge to the Mills


(?) 1800

Wetherby: Looking through the Bridge to the Mills


(?) 1802

Paris: The Ruins of the Roman Baths, Hôtel de Cluny


(?) 1802

Paris: The Ruins of the Roman Baths, Hôtel de Cluny


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 I have yet to see the work in Boston, but the image supplied by the Museum is a good one.
  2. 2 Many thanks to Rob Piggott at the Archives of the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban for providing access to the work and for help with drafting this text.
  3. 3 James Grimston, 3rd Viscount Grimston (1747–1808) would be the obvious candidate, but nothing so far has linked him directly with Girtin.

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