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Works Thomas Girtin

Three Vessels in Full Sail

(?) 1800

Primary Image: TG1807: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Three Vessels in Full Sail, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 10.5 × 17.5 cm, 4 ⅛ × 6 ⅞ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.45).

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

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Three Vessels in Full Sail
(?) 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
10.5 × 17.5 cm, 4 ⅛ × 6 ⅞ in
Object Type
Colour Sketch: Studio Work
Subject Terms
Coasts and Shipping

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
428g as '1801'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


Chambers Hall (1786–1855); presented to the Museum, 1855


Binyon, 1898–1907, no.24a as 'Sketch at Sea'; Hardie, 1938–39, pl.24b

About this Work

This is one of five studies of shipping all on paper measuring 4 ½ × 7 in (10.3 × 17.7 cm). Together with three larger drawings found in the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1622, TG1623 and TG1625), they form a distinctive group that all appear to have been produced at the same time. Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak suggested that this and the other sketches of boats in various configurations were ‘probably made in the neighbourhood of Whitby’, on the North Yorkshire coast, during Girtin’s ‘visit to Mulgrave Castle’, which they dated to 1801 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.192–93). Susan Morris, in contrast, thought that the shipping studies were produced on a hitherto unrecorded trip to ‘the West Country in 1800 or 1801’, citing an inscription on the back of Shipping off the Coast on a Calm Sea (TG1624), which she read as ‘Mount Edgecumbe’, referring to a location near Plymouth in Devon (Morris, 1986, p.21). However, I have found no convincing evidence to support the idea of a second West Country trip, and I am not sure about the reading of the inscription which may not even be by Girtin. In turn, though I do not agree with Girtin and Loshak’s date of 1801 for Girtin’s stay, the suggestion that most if not all of the studies were made on the North Yorkshire coast does seem plausible. In fact, Girtin showed no great interest in naval subjects, certainly in comparison with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), and, apart from during his stay at Mulgrave Castle, which surely took place in 1800, the artist probably only sketched coastal subjects on two occasions, during his trip to the West Country in 1797 and a year earlier on a visit to Northumbria, whilst all of these studies appear to date from a few years later.

Looking at the group of studies as a whole, one is struck by the artist’s indifference to the appearance of the sea, which is generally depicted as a bland, flat surface, though in this case the addition of colour is less perfunctory. Nonetheless, there is still a disparity between the billowing sails and the disturbed sky, which are suggestive of a windy day, and the sea, which, although it is depicted with a degree more variety than usual, creates no equivalent sense of movement and energy. On balance, I suspect that this is because of the artist’s lack of interest in naval subjects, rather than being evidence of the intervention of another artist, and that the lack of unity between sea and sky is compounded by the likelihood that what might have been sketched in pencil on the spot was coloured later in the studio in order to create a more attractive, saleable commodity. Even then, though, the fact that the three vessels are so carefully placed on the sheet means that the possibility that they were copied from other sources cannot be ruled out.

(?) 1800

Beached Vessels at Low Tide


(?) 1800

Five Craft off the Coast on a Calm Sea


(?) 1800

The Ruins of Old Mulgrave Castle


(?) 1800

Shipping off the Coast on a Calm Sea


by Greg Smith

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