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Works Thomas Girtin

The Valley of the Tweed, with Melrose Abbey in the Distance

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1721: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Valley of the Tweed, with Melrose Abbey in the Distance, 1800–01, watercolour on paper, 31.1 × 52.1 cm, 12 ¼ × 20 ½ in. Private Collection.

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Valley of the Tweed, with Melrose Abbey in the Distance
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Watercolour on paper
31.1 × 52.1 cm, 12 ¼ × 20 ½ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; The Scottish Borders; The View from Above

The Valley of the Tweed, with Melrose Abbey in the Distance (TG1720)
Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Witt Library Photograph


Probably Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, later Duchess of Sutherland (1765–1839); then by descent to George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 5th Duke of Sutherland (1888–1963); his sale, Christie's, 9 December 1949, lot 46 as 'The Valley of the Rye with Rievaulx Abbey'; bought by the Fine Art Society, London, £60

Exhibition History

Scarborough, 1950, no.26

About this Work

This significant late watercolour, which shows the valley of the Tweed in the Scottish Borders, with the ruins of Melrose Abbey in the distance, is based on what appears to be an on-the-spot sketch (TG1720). This was probably produced in 1800 when Girtin is known to have stayed at the nearby seat of the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742–1829) at Dryburgh, on what would have been his second visit to the area (Jenkins, Notes, 1852). Rather surprisingly, the work was not included in Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak’s catalogue of Girtin’s watercolours (Girtin and Loshak, 1954), but, though it has not been seen in public since soon after its appearance at auction in 1949 and is therefore known only from an old black and white photograph, there can be no doubt about the attribution to Girtin. Even working from an old image, it is clear that the watercolour provides a fascinating example of the artist adapting an on-the-spot sketch to create an attractive studio watercolour, and a composition that deserves to be much better known. The foreground, in particular, has been recast, with the line of the road changed to create a more oblique and serpentine route into the composition, whilst the vegetation has been rearranged to create an enhanced incline that emphasises the isolation of the ruins. Bright sunlight still highlights the abbey, whilst the modern village of Melrose is effectively obscured by a combination of deep shade and trees, but elsewhere the field patterns are brought into clearer focus as a series of diagonals that give the studio work a greater spatial clarity. In another change to the sketch, the artist has extended the composition to the right, including more of the carefully obscured village so that the work conforms to the standard size and format of numerous later watercolours, 31.1 × 52.1 cm (12 ¼ × 20 ½ in).

This final feature is commonly a sign that a watercolour was made by the artist for sale through Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who acted on behalf of the artist in his final years in a role somewhere between agent and dealer. Whilst this may have been the case, other evidence points to a link with one of Girtin’s best-known pupils, Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, later Duchess of Sutherland (1765–1839) (Morris, 2002a, pp.256–57). The watercolour was sold in 1949 by George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 5th Duke of Sutherland (1888–1963), and it is a reasonable assumption that he inherited the work through the family from the only ancestor of his who is known to have had any association with Girtin. The evidence is far from overwhelming, but it is possible that the work was actually commissioned directly by Lady Sutherland, as she was known during Girtin’s lifetime, and she may have ordered it as a result of seeing the sketch. She appears to have owned at least one other work by Girtin, a view of Kirkby Malham in Yorkshire (TG1690). Though it too could have been supplied by Reynolds, the fact that the amateur is known to have been an ardent supporter of Girtin makes it more likely that she acquired both works from the artist directly. According to the diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821), ‘Lady Sutherland’ was one of a number of patrons who were ‘disposed to set up Girtin against Turner – who they say effects his purpose by industry – the former more genius’ (Farington, Diary, 9 February 1799). A work such as this view of Melrose, with its economical use of washes and spare composition, seems to fit the latter criterion, and it was presumably this quality that Gower had in mind when she engaged the artist as her teacher.



(?) 1800

The Valley of the Tweed, with Melrose Abbey in the Distance



Kirkby Malham


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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