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Works Thomas Girtin

Unidentified Gothic Ruins, Said to Be St Mary’s Abbey, York

1798 - 1800

Primary Image: TG1052: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Unidentified Gothic Ruins, Said to Be St Mary's Abbey, York, 1798–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 30.9 × 50.8 cm, 12 ⅛ × 20 in. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery (1913P10).

Photo courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Unidentified Gothic Ruins, Said to Be St Mary’s Abbey, York
1798 - 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
30.9 × 50.8 cm, 12 ⅛ × 20 in
Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Monastic Ruins; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
384 as 'St Mary's Abbey, York'; '1800'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Presented by the Trustees of the Public Picture Gallery Fund, 1913

Exhibition History

Brussels, 1929, no.75; Amsterdam, 1965, no.57; Lyons, 1966, no.55; Prague, 1969, no.67; Bourges, 1970, no.56


Mayne, 1949, p.101; Hill, 1996, p.203

About this Work

St Mary's Abbey, York

This view of Gothic ruins went under the title ‘St. Mary’s Abbey, York’ in Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak’s catalogue of Girtin’s works, but Tom Girtin (1913–94) said that the subject was actually ‘unidentifiable’, whilst David Hill has noted that the work displays ‘a less than professional grasp of the architecture or the site’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.186; Girtin Archive, 34; Hill, 1996, p.203). Hill’s implication is presumably that Girtin copied the image from the work of an amateur artist such as James Moore (1762–99), whose sketches provided the basis for numerous early watercolours by Girtin and who might not have been expected to have provided an accurate record of a site. However, Moore’s view of the remains of the thirteenth-century west front of St Mary’s Abbey (see figure 1), the only part of the site that in any way resembles the structure shown here, records the three levels of ornate arcading that distinguish the facade with some precision, albeit with little artistic distinction.Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) made a detailed sketch from similar viewpoint during his 1797 northern tour (Tate, Turner Berquest XXXV 71) and it confirms the veracity of Moore’s drawing. In comparison, the structure shown here includes just the two levels of arcades, and a further comparison with the view of St Mary’s shown in Girtin’s watercolour York Minster, from the Ouse (TG1049) accords in most respects with Moore’s drawing, demanding us to reconsider the traditional identification of the subject of the watercolour. One possibility is that the view actually represents a hitherto unidentified location which diligent research might subsequently reveal. The other option, and the one that I currently favour, is that Girtin depicted just the right-hand part of the portal, cutting the building to the left to create a capriccio design of a generic Gothic ruin in a landscape, with no reference to its York setting.

There is of course another possible explanation for the mismatch between the traditional title of the work and the appearance of the ruined York abbey – namely, that the work is not by Girtin but by a follower with a poor grasp of perspective and the principles of Gothic architecture. The work is in particularly miserable condition, badly faded with the sky gone completely, the pencil work too prominent and the foliage flattened out, and consequently making a definitive attribution to Girtin is not straightforward. However, although the watercolour is not of the highest quality, there is just enough in the work to suggest that it is by Girtin after all, and that it is therefore the subject on which attention needs to be focused. Sorting that out would no doubt help with the dating of the work, which Girtin and Loshak give as 1800, rather than immediately after the 1796 northern tour, as I initially thought (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.184).

1797 - 1798

York Minster, from the Ouse, with St Mary’s Abbey


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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