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Works Thomas Girtin

The West Front of Byland Abbey

1795 - 1796

Primary Image: TG0234: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The West Front of Byland Abbey, (?) 1796, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 21.4 × 27 cm, 8 ⅜ × 10 ⅝ in. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery (1953P219).

Photo courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The West Front of Byland Abbey
1795 - 1796
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
21.4 × 27 cm, 8 ⅜ × 10 ⅝ in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Work after an Amateur Artist
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
171 as 'Byland Abbey'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and April 2024


Arthur Mason Worthington (1852–1916); Christie's, 11 May 1908, lot 61, as by Edward Dayes; bought by 'Leggatt', £6 16s 6d; Leggatt Brothers, London; Guy Bellingham-Smith (1865–1949); James Leslie Wright (1862–1954) (lent to Birmingham, 1938); presented to the Museum, 1953

Exhibition History

Birmingham, 1938, no.78; Birmingham, 1939, no.188; London, 1949, no.184; Arts Council, 1980, no.14; Nottingham, 1988, no.41; London, 1992, no.12


Rose, 1980, p.57; Rajnai, 1982, pp.10–12

About this Work

This watercolour, which is in excellent condition with its fresh colouring well preserved, dates from a period of transition in Girtin’s practice, and consequently we need to consider no fewer than three different options in order to better understand its status. A first, and logical, starting point would be to relate it to the earlier view of Byland that Girtin painted for his first significant patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99) around 1792–93 (TG0087). Moore presumably provided the model for Girtin’s watercolour of the interior of the west front, and the antiquarian is also known to have made a view of the same part of the building from outside (see TG0087 figure 1). The angle it is shown from differs somewhat from Moore’s view and, though there may have been another lost sketch by the amateur, the fact that this watercolour did not come from the Moore collection encouraged Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak to look at another possibility. They argued that the work was probably made after a drawing by Edward Dayes (1763–1804), pointing to an engraving of Byland after Dayes that was included in The Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet (Storer and Greig, 1807–11, vol.7). This is taken from a more distant viewpoint and may have been made, in any case, on a later trip to Yorkshire (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.157). Girtin and Loshak’s date of 1796 for the watercolour prompts consideration of a final scenario, since stylistically it could indeed date from the time of the artist’s first northern trip in the autumn of that year and therefore it might be the outcome of a sketch that Girtin himself made on the spot. Again there are problems with the hypothesis as there is no evidence that the artist’s journey took him anywhere near that part of Yorkshire and, as a comparison with a contemporary photograph of the scene would show, Girtin’s view renders the rather squat proportions of the facade as a more attenuated, elegant structure. At least he did not commit such a glaring error as showing the three lancet windows as two, as he had done in his earlier watercolour of Byland (TG0087), but in the end this hypothesis seems equally if not more problematic than the others.

There are problems, therefore, with each of the possible scenarios, but perhaps the first is, on balance, the most likely. Sometime around 1795–96 Girtin looked again at copies he had made of Moore’s sketches and found a subject that might have appealed not just to antiquarians, and he consequently worked it up for a less specialised segment of the market who would not be concerned by the way that the artist wifully cuts the turret to the left.

1792 - 1793

Byland Abbey


1792 - 1793

Byland Abbey


1792 - 1793

Byland Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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