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Works Thomas Girtin

The Town of Rye, Seen from the Marshes

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1752: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Town of Rye, Seen from the Marshes, 1796–97, watercolour and gum arabic on laid paper, 21.7 × 46.7 cm, 8 ½ × 18 ⅜ in. British Museum, London (1878,1228.37).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Town of Rye, Seen from the Marshes
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Watercolour and gum arabic on laid paper
21.7 × 46.7 cm, 8 ½ × 18 ⅜ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping; Panoramic Format; Sussex View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
94ii as 'The Town of Rye ... may be a copy by Henderson'; 'The authenticity of this drawing is very doubtful.'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


John Henderson (1764–1843); then by descent to John Henderson II (1797–1878); bequeathed to the Museum, 1878


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.53

About this Work

This panoramic evening scene showing the town of Rye from the marshes to the south east is based on a pencil sketch (TG0241) that in turn appears to have been copied from an untraced drawing by Girtin’s patron John Henderson (1764–1843). The watercolour was bequeathed to the British Museum by the collector’s son, John Henderson II (1797–1878), and it seems that it was commissioned from the artist, who almost certainly did not visit the coastal town in Sussex in 1795, as was once thought, and who therefore ultimately depended on his patron’s sketch. Girtin produced another view of Rye, seen from the river Tillingham, in collaboration with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), probably at the home of another patron, Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) (TG0846), and it was presumably here that he made the pencil copy of Henderson’s sketch that formed the basis for this much more fully worked-up evening scene. The panoramic format and the fine sunset effect suggest a later date than the view Girtin and Turner produced for Monro, with its simple palette of blues and greys, but the artist is not known to have worked for Henderson much after 1798 at the latest, and the contrasting styles of the two works stem, I suspect, from the different functions that they performed. The larger, panoramic format of this watercolour, in contrast to the original sketch, together with the artist’s use of gum arabic to deepen its tone and thus enhance the crepuscular effect, indicate that it was designed to be framed and displayed on the wall, in contrast to the mass of material that Girtin produced either for Monro or Henderson himself. Though the issue of dating has been clouded by the watercolour’s faded condition, and the closest stylistic parallels that I can find are with the watercolours Warkworth Castle (TG1711) and A Distant View of Guisborough Priory (TG1699), both of which date from around 1800, I nonetheless suspect that it was painted around 1796–97. Girtin’s rather simplistic use of a silhouetted skyline and the crude application of gum arabic, which drains the life out of the colouring, suggest an artist still experimenting with the panoramic mode and unsure how to treat the foreground, and this earlier date seems more appropriate than 1800, proposed by the British Museum (British Museum, Collection, 1878,1228.37).

It was presumably similar concerns about the quality of the work that led Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak to conclude that the ‘authenticity of this drawing is very doubtful’ and that ‘it may be a copy by Henderson’ of an untraced ‘Rye, Sussex. A View by Twilight’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.147), which was shown at an exhibition in 1822 (Exhibitions: London, 1822, no.58). The missing version of the composition was in the possession of the antiquarian writer John Britton (1771–1857) in 1822, and it is therefore unlikely that Henderson had access to it to make a copy. The more probable scenario is that the exhibited work was a second version of a composition that the patron had commissioned from Girtin. The twilight scene may indeed have weaknesses, but the evening effect is surely beyond the amateur’s capabilities, and the transformation of the standard landscape format seen in the original sketch into a panoramic composition, in particular, evinces the hand of a professional artist.

1795 - 1796

The Town of Rye, Seen from the Marshes


1795 - 1796

Rye, from the River Tillingham


1800 - 1801

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet


1800 - 1801

A Distant View of Guisborough Priory; The Tithe Barn, Abbotsbury


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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