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Works Thomas Girtin

The Old Severn Bridge at Bridgnorth

(?) 1798

Primary Image: TG1357: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Old Severn Bridge at Bridgnorth, (?) 1798, graphite on wove paper, 23.3 × 55.2 cm, 9 ⅛ × 21 ⅝ in. British Museum, London (1850,0513.10).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Old Severn Bridge at Bridgnorth
(?) 1798
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
23.3 × 55.2 cm, 9 ⅛ × 21 ⅝ in

'Bridgnorth', lower left by Thomas Girtin; ‘Trace from nature of Bridgnorth / in Shropshire - for the finished / Drawing in the British Museum’ lower centre in pen and ink, by (?) Chambers Hall; ‘Presented to the Museum April 1850 by C.H.’ lower right in pen and ink, by (?) Chambers Hall

Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Shropshire View; The Country Town

Bridgnorth (TG1755)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
260i as 'Bridgnorth'; 'l., c. 1798. r., 1802.'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018


Chambers Hall (1786–1855); presented to the Museum, 1850

Exhibition History

Shrewsbury, 1957, no catalogue; London, 2002, no.91 as ’Bridgnorth, Shropshire’


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.65; Oppé, 1955, p.393; Loshak, 1957, p.58; Wilton, 1984a, p.11

About this Work

This large and complex pencil drawing depicts the old Severn Bridge at Bridgnorth, with the picturesque house at the east end of the structure showing prominently and the tower of St Leonard’s Church behind. Sadly, the appearance of the work has been spoilt by the addition of a long note in pen and ink, which records that this ‘Trace from nature’ was used for the basis of a watercolour, like this work now in the British Museum (TG1755). Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak interpreted this to mean that Girtin made the drawing using a drawing instrument, though there is no reason to believe that Chambers Hall (1786–1855), the work’s owner and the author of the inscription, was privy to any specific evidence regarding the artist’s working practice (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.169). There is one feature that possibly supports the contention that Girtin used a camera obscura, however: the double fold that runs vertically through the centre of the drawing. This may have resulted from the artist trying out the appearance of an alternative composition, as with the sketch The Village of Jedburgh (TG1228), but it could also be that the paper was folded to fit into the restricted space of a portable camera. The problem with this thesis is that the use of a mechanical aid for fixing the position of objects in a drawing does not necessarily leave unequivocal signs, and a highly skilled draughtsman like Girtin could retain his individual touch even as he traced the forms cast in the camera. On balance, therefore, I suspect that the work was drawn freehand.

View of Bridgnorth

There has also been some debate about the date of the sketch, with Girtin and Loshak proposing that the ‘left-hand portion of the drawing … is in a considerably earlier style (1798 or before) than the right hand portion, which is in Girtin’s latest pencil manner’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.169). This stylistic discrepancy could be explained, they argued, by the fact that since completing his sketch in 1798, the old toll house – which can be seen in Joseph Farington’s (1747–1821) view of the bridge (see figure 1) – had been demolished, so Girtin may have brought his sketch up to date in preparation for the monumental watercolour he executed in 1802 (TG1755). According to the earlier cataloguers of Girtin’s works, the artist cut his original drawing and added another piece of paper to the right in a more up-to-date style, with the new form of the bridge replacing his original sketch. There are a number of problems with this ingenious theory, not least of which is the fact that the work is not actually on ‘two pieces of paper joined’, as Girtin and Loshak suggested (p.169). Moreover, although the two sides of the drawing are different in appearance, this surely stems from the use of two contrasting conventions to record the near and further distance. Thus, whilst the form of the more distant buildings and part of the bridge could be fixed with a predominant outline, the different textures of vegetation and masonry, closer to, required a bolder hatching and a more varied touch using a softer piece of graphite if they were to be realised satisfactorily in a finished watercolour. Furthermore, the technique used here is not demonstrably later, as claimed by Girtin and Loshak, for the bold hatching is very comparable with the drawing of the Ogwen Falls (TG1329), which though the earlier authors dated it to 1801, we now know must have been produced on the 1798 tour. All of this makes me inclined to stand by the conclusion I outlined in the 2002 Girtin centenary exhibition catalogue – namely, that the drawing was made in one sitting from life and that the most likely date for this was 1798, on Girtin’s journey to or from North Wales (Smith, 2002b, p.118).


More recently, the online collection database of the British Museum has taken me to task for not accounting for how Girtin came to depict the up-to-date appearance of the bridge, following the changes that apparently took place in 1801; this, the anonymous author suggests, actually ‘reveals’ the artist’s ‘acute sense of the topical and an engagement with watercolour as an art of record, commemorating the changing face of Britain in the face of social and technological advances’ (British Museum, Collection, 1850,0513.10). Since I am still convinced that the drawing shows no sign of having been altered, there are just two alternative explanations for the appearance of the structure. On the one hand, it is possible that Girtin revisited Bridgnorth in 1801. Though this would have been uncharacteristic, it may be that a prestigious commission persuaded him to make such a trip, and this would account for the uncommonly large scale of the drawing. On the other, I wonder whether it is not time to look again at the suggestion that the old Severn Bridge underwent changes as late as 1801, since I have not been able to find any documentary evidence that the work took place then, and the local historian quoted by Girtin and Loshak, S. Morley Tonkin, does not quote any sources for his conclusion. The parliamentary ‘Act for repairing and rebuilding the Bridge over the Severn in Bridgnorth and for opening convenient avenues thereto’ actually dates from 1797, and another item in the Shropshire Archives notes ‘The award of the Commissioners for repairing the bridge to Samuel Jones’, also in 1797 (BB/E/2/4/7). Could it be, therefore, that the work was carried out prior to Girtin’s 1798 tour after all? This possibility is also made more likely by the evidence provided by the view of the bridge from the opposite direction that was produced by John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) in 1800 (see figure 2). The watercolour is very sketchy in its detail, but it appears to lack the prominent bell tower and clock that surmount the old toll house, as in the view taken by Turner in 1794 (see TG1755 figure 1). As a result of admittedly pretty basic research in the archives, I now believe that, as ever, the simple, non-convoluted explanation for the drawing is the correct one: Girtin made a fine drawing of Bridgnorth on his return from Wales in 1798, and the dating of the changes to the old Severn Bridge came from the use of Girtin’s 1802 watercolour as evidence for the timing of the removal of the toll house.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a white wove drawing paper, probably manufactured by Robert Edmeads (unknown dates) and Thomas Pine (unknown dates) at Great Ivy Mill near Maidstone (Smith, 2002b, p.118; Bower, Report).




(?) 1796

The Village of Jedburgh, with the Abbey Ruins





(?) 1798

The Ogwen Falls


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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