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Works Thomas Girtin

The South Side of York Minster, Showing the Transept and the Western Towers

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1050: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The South Side of York Minster, Showing the Transept and the Western Towers, 1796–97, watercolour on laid paper, 45.7 × 56.7 cm, 18 × 22 ½ in. Private Collection, Yorkshire.

Photo courtesy of a Private Collection (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The South Side of York Minster, Showing the Transept and the Western Towers
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Watercolour on laid paper
45.7 × 56.7 cm, 18 × 22 ½ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
181 as 'York Minster'; '1796–7'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 1999, 2002 and July 2024


Entered the collection of the Fawkes family of Farnley Hall prior to 1911; then by descent

Exhibition History

(?) Royal Academy, London, 1797, no.486, no.489, no.499 or no.726 as ’View of York’; Grafton Galleries, London, 1911, no.183 as ’Lent by Mrs. Fawkes’; York, 1972, no.23; Harewood, 1999, no.30; London, 2002, no.50


Hill, 1996, pp.148–50; p.203

About this Work

This fine view of the southern flank of York Minster, showing the two western towers and the thirteenth-century transept, was presumably made after a drawing sketched on Girtin’s tour to the northern counties and Scottish Borders in 1796. The view of the minster from this angle is very confined. Girtin faced a difficult challenge to fit all of the different elements of the architecture into the composition and, as David Hill has demonstrated, Girtin had to incorporate two different viewpoints (Hill, 1996, pp.148–49). As a result, the relationship between the facade of the transept and the rest of the building is not entirely satisfactory, and there are distortions in the architectural details, particularly in the circular window in the pediment, which is squashed into an oval shape. Nonetheless, the subtle play of light on what Edward Dayes (1763–1804) termed a ‘noble display of architectural beauty’ compensates for any faults in the perspective, with the result that this is one of Girtin’s most impressive depictions of a Gothic building (Dayes, Works, p.174). Turner faced the same challenge when he came to sketch the view on his 1797 visit to York (see figure 1); indeed, so close is the result that Hill initially suggested that Girtin may have based his finished work on the Turner sketch. However, a close comparison of the two drawings reveals numerous small discrepancies and Hill was to change his mind, later suggesting that the pencil drawing was in fact one of half a dozen or so examples of where Turner was ‘inspired’ by Girtin ‘to sketch the subject himself’ (Hill, 1999, p.48).

York Minster: The West Towers and South Transept from Minstergate

The link with Turner is of particular interest because of the watercolour’s provenance as part of the collection at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, the seat of Turner’s great patron Walter Fawkes (1769–1825). Hill speculated that it might have been that Girtin was actually ‘noticed by Fawkes before Turner’, pointing to the fact that the patron’s famous ancestor, Guy Fawkes (1570–1606), was born and baptised a few metres away from the artist’s viewpoint (Hill, 1999, p.48); moreover, in the catalogue of Girtin’s 2002 bicentenary exhibition, I recklessly concluded that the ‘watercolour was commissioned by Walter Fawkes’ from the artist (Smith, 2002b, p.76). However, no work by Girtin was listed in the catalogue of the exhibition of watercolours from his collection that Fawkes organised in 1819, and, although it is not known precisely when the York view entered the collection of the Fawkes family – the first record of its ownership was not until 1911 (Exhibitions: Grafton Galleries, London, 1911) – it is now clear that it was not commissioned by Turner’s patron. Nonetheless, the work’s impressive scale and the amount of labour that went into recording the detailed view and realising it as a watercolour fit to stand its own as a framed object suggest that it was produced on commission, and, furthermore, that it was one of the drawings that Girtin sent to the 1797 Royal Academy exhibition as evidence of the progress of his art.

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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