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Works Thomas Girtin

The Sawmill, Cassiobury Park

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1571: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Sawmill, Cassiobury Park, 1800–01, graphite and watercolour on paper, 49.5 × 95.3 cm, 19 ½ × 37 ½ in. Watford Museum.

Photo courtesy of Watford Museum (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Sawmill, Cassiobury Park
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on paper
49.5 × 95.3 cm, 19 ½ × 37 ½ in
Object Type
Commissioned from Thomas Girtin; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Hertfordshire; Wind and Water Mills

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
326 as 'In Moor Park, Hertfordshire'; '1799'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


George Capel-Coningsby, 5th Earl of Essex (1757–1839); ... William Leader (1767–1828); ... Edward Cohen (1816–87) (lent to London, 1875); sold to Puttick & Simpson, 12 July 1879; ... Charles Fairfax Murray; his sale, Christie's, 14 December 1917, lot 21 as ‘A Woody Landscape, with farm buildings, and a peasant seated’; J. Palser & Sons; bought by Claude Tryon (d.1949), 7 April 1919; his sale, Christie's, 15 December 1939, lot 47 as 'A Woody Landscape, with a mill: a peasant seated in the foreground'; bought by Frederick Meatyard, £47 5s; Fine Art Society, London, 1947-48; bought by Watford Library; transferred to Watford Museum, 1981

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no.43 as ’Trees and Old Mill’; Fine Art Society, 1948, no.89 as ’In Cassiobury Park’; Watford, 1975, no.66; Watford, 1985, no number


Harwood, 1992, no.52, p.35; Rabbitts and Priestley, 2014, p.83

About this Work

Cassiobury: The House Seen across the Park, from the South

This sadly faded watercolour was commissioned by Girtin’s important late patron George Capel-Coningsby, 5th Earl of Essex (1757–1839), and it shows a view on his estate at Cassiobury in Hertfordshire. It depicts the river Gade, which runs through the park, with an adjacent mill that was only demolished as recently as 1956 – likely a sawmill though it has also been described as a ‘horse-drawn treadmill’ (Rabbitts and Priestley, 2014, p.83). The watercolour dates from around 1800, just about the time that the Earl of Essex was commissioning James Wyatt (1746–1813) to remodel the house in the Gothic style, and Humphry Repton (1752–1818) was employed to oversee changes in the park that were to culminate in the building of a series of lodges and other picturesque buildings. The project was presumably not far enough advanced by this stage for any of these developments to be apparent in the works that Girtin produced for the earl (such as TG1570), and it was left to the artist’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) to record Essex’s efforts to modernise the estate and the house (see figure 1). The fact that Girtin instead concentrated on the working estate did not mean that he compromised his own ambitions, however. This is one of the largest watercolours the artist ever produced, and it was no doubt designed from the outset to be part of a grand decorative display for the interior at Cassiobury. Works on a comparable scale, such as Harewood House, from the South East (TG1548), were attached to a wooden stretcher like an oil painting on canvas and they were then close-framed and glazed, and it is likely that this was how the view of the estate’s sawmill was displayed too. 

It is not known when Girtin first came into contact with the Earl of Essex, though we can discount the apocryphal story that it was he who came to the rescue of the young apprentice, who, according to Walter Thornbury (1828–76), was languishing in jail at the behest of his unscrupulous master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804) (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, pp.102–3).1 I suspect that we should also discount this early biographer’s flattering testimony that genius finds favour with the great and powerful and, specifically, his suggestion that the artist was a regular guest of the earl at Cassiobury, just as he was said to have been favoured with his own room at Harewood House by Edward Lascelles (1764–1814). In fact, Cassiobury was easily accessible from London, and it is more likely that Girtin explored the estate on day trips. Moreover, it has also proved difficult to substantiate the claims about the patron’s significance for Girtin’s career. The twenty ‘Paris Drawings’ he owned were purchased after the artist’s death, and in any case they have been shown to be a set of hand-coloured etchings made by the artist as a presentation set (Smith, 2017–18, pp.36–38), whilst only two watercolours have conclusively been traced from the collection at Cassiobury (see TG1570). None of the six watercolours by Girtin that Essex lent to an exhibition at the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1823 have been identified, for instance, and it seems that these works, and possibly others, left his collection in an as yet unidentified way (Exhibitions: SPWC, 1823). Until that is uncovered, making a final judgement about his significance for the artist is fraught with difficulty.

1798 - 1800

A Lake Scene with Two Herons, Possibly in Cassiobury Park


(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South East


1798 - 1800

A Lake Scene with Two Herons, Possibly in Cassiobury Park


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Thornbury’s biography of Turner includes extensive anecdotal detail about Girtin’s life and career. Although the text is often frankly fanciful in character, it does contain some useful details and the sections relating to Girtin have been transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive.(1862 – Item 1)

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