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Works Thomas Girtin after (?) Samuel Ireland

Tintern Abbey: The View from the Nave

(?) 1797

Primary Image: TG0349: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), after (?) Samuel Ireland (1744–1800), Tintern Abbey: The View from the Nave, (?) 1797, graphite and watercolour on paper, 12.5 × 16.5 cm, 4 ⅞ × 6 ½ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images, Agnew's, London (All Rights Reserved)

Artist's source: Samuel Ireland (1744–1800), aquatint, 'Interior of Tintern Abbey' for Picturesque Views on the River Wye, 1 March 1797, 11.4 × 16.4 cm, 4 ½ × 6 ½ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection Library.

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after (?) Samuel Ireland (1744-1800)
  • Tintern Abbey: The View from the Nave
(?) 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on paper
12.5 × 16.5 cm, 4 ⅞ × 6 ½ in
Object Type
Colour Sketch: Studio Work; Work from a Known Source: Contemporary British
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; South Wales; The Wye Valley

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Auction Catalogue


Sotheby’s, 14 April 1994b, lot 452, £7,775

About this Work

One of Girtin’s earlier views of the interior of Tintern Abbey dates from when the young artist was apprenticed to Edward Dayes (1763–1804), and it was probably copied from one of his compositions (see TG0213 figure 1). Not surprisingly, it has been assumed that Dayes was the source for this later work too, but the during the preparation of this online catalogue that it is a copy of an aquatint published by Samuel Ireland (1744–1800) in his Picturesque Views on the River Wye has opened up intriguing new possibilities (see the source image above). According to the accompanying text, Ireland made the drawings for his illustrations of a tour along the length of the river in 1794, but the prints were not published until 1797 (Ireland, 1797). Therefore, Girtin’s copy, together with two other views taken from the same source (TG0343 and TG0350), postdates the rest of the artist’s Wye views by perhaps five years. As a result of the discovery of the source of the three later watercolours, it is now possible to say with some certainty that Girtin did not visit the much frequented picturesque river, and that all of his views of the celebrated ruins at Tintern were thus made from secondary sources. However, whilst it may have made sense to copy the work of another artist early on in his career, when his apprenticeship to Dayes made it impossible to travel, by 1797 Girtin had completed the second of his annual tours and was exhibiting and selling watercolours made from his own on-the-spot sketches. What function did this work perform, therefore, and why did he turn to Ireland’s rather prosaic prints when he had perfectly good models by Dayes to work from if he wanted to produce more Tintern subjects?

The first point to make is that it is not inconceivable that Girtin was employed to make an improved version of Ireland’s on-the-spot sketch and was simply not credited on the print for his labour. However, all the differences between the watercolour and the aquatint, particularly in the placement of the figures and the play of light across the stonework, are considerable improvements on the print, and it would not have made sense for the engraver to discard the changes. More salient is the different aesthetic of the watercolour, which, in the extensive areas of foliage and the patterning on the stonework, employs a sketchier approach, from which it is hard to see how the engraver could have produced the sharper detail in the print. In fact, all three of the Wye watercolours associated with Ireland’s publication, each measuring roughly 11.5 × 16.5 cm (4 ½ × 6 ½ in), resemble a series of sketch-like commodities that Girtin produced following his trip to the north of England in 1796. The attraction of examples such as Bothal Castle, from the River Wansbeck (TG1089) and Seaton Sluice (TG1088) was that they were quick to produce and might be sold at a lower price to amateurs who appreciated the spontaneous production of what purported to be sketches made on the spot, and these are precisely the qualities shown here. The economical application of simple washes of colour therefore signified a spontaneously produced sketch from life even as it copied the work of another artist through the medium of an aquatint.

Girtin’s approach becomes clearer if we contrast this work with his earlier depictions of the interior of the ruins of Tintern Abbey church (TG0172 and TG0213) with the text to Ireland’s aquatint, which describes this ‘sublime and sequestered spot’ at length. For Ireland, the effect of entering ‘this sublime ruin’ is to be ‘struck with a reverential and religious awe’, whilst ‘the pointed arches above … as if magically suspended … raise an idea of grandeur’ with ‘a melancholy tinge’ (Ireland, 1797, pp.135–36). Something of this complex set of associations comes across in Girtin’s earlier watercolours, but here the mass of foliage is hardly gloomy and the horizontal composition dissipates the overarching sense of the sublime. This is not an exercise in moral reverie so much as a celebration of the artist’s skill in faking a plausible firsthand engagement with nature.

(?) 1797

Tintern Abbey, from the River Wye


(?) 1797

The Market at Aberystwyth


1796 - 1797

Bothal Castle, from the River Wansbeck


1796 - 1797

Seaton Sluice


1792 - 1793

The Interior of Tintern Abbey, Showing the Choir and North Transept


1792 - 1793

The Interior of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the West Window from the Choir


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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