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Works Thomas Girtin

The Ouse Bridge, York


Primary Image: TG1649: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Ouse Bridge, York, 1800, graphite, watercolour, pen and ink and scratching out on laid paper, 32.9 × 52.4 cm, 13 × 20 ⅝ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.363).

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

Print after: Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), after Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), mezzotint, The Ouse Bridge, York, 7 May 1824, republished in Liber Naturae; or, A Collection of Prints from the Drawings of Thomas Girtin, pl.6, London, 1883, 15.1 × 22.7 cm, 6 × 9 in. British Museum, London (1893,0612.82.7).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Ouse Bridge, York
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour, pen and ink and scratching out on laid paper
32.9 × 52.4 cm, 13 × 20 ⅝ in

‘Girtin 1800’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Part of
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
City Life and Labour; River Scenery; Yorkshire View

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


Thomas Girtin (1775–1802); his posthumous sale, possibly Christie’s, 1 June 1803, lot 129, £21 10s 6d; ...Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74) (lent to London, 1862); then by descent to George Wyndham Girtin (1836–1912) (lent to London, 1871; London, 1873; London, 1875; London, 1877); 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


Lytton, 1911, no.9; Finberg and Taylor, 1917–18, p.14; Davies, 1924, pl.78; Mayne, 1949, p.103; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.70; Holcomb, 1974, pp.50–51; Ushenko, 1979, pp.231–33, pp.300–03; Wilson and Mee, 2002, pp.85–86; Hill, 2005, p.12; Hargraves, 2007, pp.95–98; Leeson, 2021, p.118

About this Work

This much faded though still compelling watercolour depicts the view from the north bank of the river Ouse looking upstream, with the bridge and St William’s Chapel in the centre and the quay of King’s Staith to the right. Girtin visited York in 1796 on his first independent tour, which took in the northern counties and the Scottish Borders, and, given that there is no evidence that he returned on either of his other documented Yorkshire tours in 1799 and 1800, it seems that he revisited earlier sketches to produce this, one of at least four views of the city that date from 1800 and 1801 (the others being TG1652, TG1653 and TG1656). Three of the watercolours conform to the standard size of the works that were disposed of by Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer. Since each was also the subject of a mezzotint by Reynolds, as in this case (see print after, above, Neill & Son, 1883), there is little doubt that they were executed for sale on the open market and that Girtin returned to his earlier sketches to find subjects that would make for saleable commodities.

York was not necessarily an obvious choice of subject for Girtin since, aside from the minster, the city rarely impressed visitors at this period. According to Henry Skrine (1755–1803), a ‘singular air of languor and inaction pervades the whole city’ and it was in a distressing ‘state of desertion and neglect’ (Skrine, 1795, p.xx). Edward Dayes (1763–1804), however, thought that the bridge at least provided opportunities for ‘the lover of drawing’, since ‘it composes a scene that would have delighted Canaletti, and rivals many of his finest Venetian views’. The ‘Great Council Chamber, and the Prison for Debtors and Felons’ on the bridge itself, Girtin’s master continued, combined with the ‘irregular buildings that decorate[d] the banks of the river Ouse, the craft, and a multitude of busy figures employed in loading and unloading the vessels, [to] present a fine set of objects for the attention of the draughtsman’ (Dayes, Works, pp.179–80). Girtin organised all of these elements into a simple composition in which the buildings and bridge are set across the middle ground, with coal barges, wagons and figures engaged in various labours, placed prominently in a frieze-like composition in front. To the right, a vignette of juvenile charity adds a sentimental note that, in the context of a view of a debtors’ prison and a stray anchor in the foreground, provides a rare example of an overt piece of moralising in Girtin’s work. As David Hill has noted, King’s Staith was the centre of the coal trade at this time, and he suggested that Girtin presented the ‘muddy bank’ in the foreground as an unglamourised counterpoint to the bridge, with its associations with Venice and an earlier great trading empire. For Hill, the work’s ‘muted’ palette, which sees such details ‘painted in lamp black as if Girtin was painting in coal’, was part of the process of ‘deflating’ the subject, though arguably that is putting too positive a gloss on the compromised condition of the badly faded watercolour (Hill, 1999, p.50). The blues in the sky and in the reflections in the water have long gone, as has the grey in the clouds, and I suspect that the ‘muddy bank’ in the foreground was actually originally green, though I do not think that these losses undermine the broader argument that the artist has, from an ostensible topographical subject, created a compellingly untidy image of modern commerce.

The Ouse Bridge, York

A good-quality full-scale copy of the work in the collection of York Art Gallery (see figure 1) was described by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak in their catalogue of Girtin’s watercolours as ‘a very exact replica’, though they attributed it to the artist ‘with some reserve’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.186). The fact that Girtin’s signed and dated watercolour was the subject of a mezzotint by Reynolds suggests to me that it was he who was also responsible for the highly competent copy, which would have been beyond the capabilities of an amateur artist working from the print.

1800 - 1801

York: The Layerthorpe Bridge and Postern


1797 - 1798

York: The Layerthorpe Bridge and Postern



York Minster from the South East, Layerthorpe Bridge and Postern to the Right


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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