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Works Thomas Girtin

The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral


Primary Image: TG1002: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, 1794, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 38 × 29 cm, 15 × 11 ⅜ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1158).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
38 × 29 cm, 15 × 11 ⅜ in

‘T. Girtin. 1794’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Exhibition Watercolour; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; The Midlands

The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (TG1001)
The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (TG1003)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
88i as 'Lichfield Cathedral'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


James Moore (1762–99); his widow, Mary Moore (née Howett) (d.1835); bequeathed to Anne Miller (1802–90) (lent to Manchester, 1857; London, 1875); bequeathed to Edward Mansel Miller (1829–1912); bequeathed to Helen Louisa Miller (1842–1915); bought by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960), 1915, £42; given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

Royal Academy, London, 1795, no.636 as ’Lichfield Cathedral’; Manchester, 1857, no.77; London, 1875, no.42; Cambridge, 1920, no.13; London, 1951, no.489; Sheffield, 1953, no.42; Norwich, 1955, no.32; Leeds, 1958, no.41; London, 1962a, no.120; Reading, 1969, no.23; New Haven, 1986a, no.20; New Haven, 2001, no.143


Shaw, 1798, vol.1, p.237; Bell, 1915–17, p.71, p.74; Grundy, 1921a, p.136, p.159; Davies, 1924, pl.13; Ritchie, 1935, pl.50; Mayne, 1949, p.31; Shanes, 1997, p.46; Smith, 2002a, p.217

About this Work

This view of Lichfield Cathedral, shown from the north west, is one of two watercolours that Girtin made after a detailed pencil sketch (TG1001) that he executed on his first significant trip outside London, undertaken in the summer of 1794. The tour through the Midland counties was organised by the artist’s earliest patron, the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore (1762–99), who accompanied Girtin to Lincoln, Southwell and Peterborough, as well as Lichfield, so that his young protégé might sketch at first hand a group of the nation’s finest Gothic buildings. This watercolour, which is dated 1794, is one of four cathedral views that were subsequently commissioned by Moore and that Girtin seems to have painted immediately after his return from the journey (the others being TG1008, TG1017 and TG0996). This watercolour and another of the Moore commissions, a comparable view of the west front of Peterborough Cathedral (TG1017), were shown at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1795, where they made a very public statement about the patron’s support for the artist as well as demonstrating the progress the young artist was making (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1795, no.636). A year earlier, Girtin had exhibited the watercolour Ely Cathedral, from the South East (TG0202), which had been based on a drawing by his patron, but now, working from his own on-the-spot sketches, he was able to render the complex architectural details of the cathedrals with greater fidelity and in compositions that, in contrast to the Ely view, displayed a secure grasp of perspective.

Girtin may no longer have had to rely on his patron’s drawings, but his independence was still circumscribed, since it was presumably Moore who chose the itinerary and selected the subjects and the viewpoints from which the young artist made his sketches. In this case, the view from the north west gives prominence to the cathedral’s unique feature, its three elegant spires. In other respects, however, the west facade was not such an appealing subject for an antiquarian, since it had been damaged during the Civil War, and Girtin diligently recorded the rows of arcades stripped of their medieval statuary, as well as the historically inaccurate seventeenth-century window tracery that replaced the ruined original. Moore’s commissions from Girtin had hitherto concentrated on recording the nation’s ruined abbeys and castles, which the antiquarian feared were destined to disappear through neglect (Moore, 1792, p.58). Moore’s 1794 tour, with its concentration on the great cathedral buildings of the Midland counties, was motivated by his perception of a different threat, one that came from modern ‘improvers’, whose restorations at Durham and other cathedrals were deemed by antiquarians to be ill-informed at best, and often downright destructive. Lichfield may have been included in Moore’s itinerary, therefore, because of the ‘improvements’ then being undertaken by James Wyatt (1746–1813), known in antiquarian circles as ‘the Destroyer’, though in this case his work actually left the west front untouched (Frew, 1979, pp.36–74).

Girtin’s second, slightly larger watercolour of Lichfield (TG1003) was produced a few years later and offers a useful marker against which to measure the artist’s progress. In particular, the warmer palette of the later work, which is much closer to the striking red sandstone from which Lichfield Cathedral is built, points to the conventional nature of Moore’s commission. As Eric Shanes has described, Girtin achieved his effect by using eleven tones of blue, grey and ochre, but the cool result reflects the practice of the artist’s master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), and it goes counter to the knowledge about the stone colour that he would have picked up by sketching the site at first hand (Shanes, 1997, p.46).

(?) 1794

The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral



Lincoln Cathedral, from the West



The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral


1794 - 1795



The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral


(?) 1794

Ely Cathedral, from the South East


(?) 1796

The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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