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Works Thomas Girtin

Unidentified Landscape with a Distant Rain Shower

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1763: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Unidentified Landscape with a Distant Rain Shower, 1800–01, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 19.5 × 35.2 cm, 7 ⅝ × 13 ⅞ in. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (NMW A 3115).

Photo courtesy of National Museum Wales (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Unidentified Landscape with a Distant Rain Shower
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
19.5 × 35.2 cm, 7 ⅝ × 13 ⅞ in

‘Girtin’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Unidentified Landscape; Weather Effect

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
492 as 'Landscape with Stormy Sky'; '1802'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


Charles Sackville Bale (1791–1880); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 13 May 1881, lot 91, as 'A River Scene'; bought by 'Thompson', £24 3s; James Pyke Thompson (1846–97); Turner House Collection, Penarth; transferred to the Museum, 1921

Exhibition History

Cardiff, 1884, no.459; Arts Council, 1947a, no.23; Manchester, 1975, no.105; Hamburg, 1976, no.268; London, 2002, no.168; Bath, 2003, no.29; Lincoln, 2007, no.39


Baxandall, 1939, pp.14–15, p.50; Mayne, 1949, p.101; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.84; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.19; Owen, 1991, pp.27–28; Thornes, 1999, p.179; Herrmann, 2000, pp.43–44

About this Work

Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak thought that this unidentified view might have been painted in the open in the vicinity of Hampstead or Primrose Hill, north London, and that it dates from the artist’s last months, when Girtin was too ill to travel far from his last base in Islington (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.84). The distant landscape is too flat for either of those locations, however, and neither view includes a prominent river; moreover, there is no evidence to suggest such a late date either. Indeed, the similarity of the sky to that shown in Lydford Castle, from the River Lyd (TG1734), from 1800, suggests a more likely option, as does the presence of the same reclining figure seen in a similarly dated drawing of the ruins of Bolton Priory (TG1678). I have more sympathy for Girtin and Loshak’s view that this watercolour was painted in the open air, however, because, as the author of a book on the celebrated skies painted by John Constable (1776–1837) has rightly noted, Girtin’s scene is ‘as vibrant and true as any’ of Constable’s ‘paintings of rain or showers’ (Thornes, 1999, p.179). Indeed, it may even be that this is the best example of Girtin’s ability to observe and record a complex and effervescent natural effect, leaving far behind the only other cloud or sky studies that he completed, dating from much earlier in his career (TG0186 and TG0199). All of this suggested to the earlier cataloguers of Girtin’s work that what they saw as ‘obviously a late work’ was ‘evidence of Girtin’s presumably fatal habit of “sitting out for hours in the rain to observe the effects of storms and clouds upon the atmosphere”’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.84, quoting Roget, 1891, p.95). Although the authors do not specify the fact, we are presumably supposed to identify the reclining figure as Girtin himself, whose death, according to the dramatist Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809), was ‘occasioned by … the inconsiderate manner’ in which he sat ‘on the ground to make his designs’, thus making him a true martyr to naturalistic painting (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, p.488).1

What this says about our expectations of a young artist touched by genius who died young, and how much can actually be read from the work itself, is a different matter, however, for although the watercolour does indeed seem the epitome of naturalistic observation, its status as an on-the-spot study is far from certain. Comparing the work with the earlier sky studies, which were painted rapidly in broad areas of monochrome, it is apparent that both the clouds and the landscape here are actually built up from multiple layers of washes, each of which would have had to dry before the artist proceeded with his sketch. All of this means the distant shower, together with the distinctive cloud formation, would have passed long before the sketch was even partially complete. All sketches of transient effects made on the spot involve an element of memory, of course, but in this case the evenness of the finish across the carefully organised landscape suggest that the fine sky effect is best understood as a testament to Girtin’s ability to translate lessons learnt in the field to a studio work. It follows, therefore, that the work was not made as an empirical study of a meteorological effect undertaken as part of a process of self-education, as in the case of Constable, being instead a studio work produced to satisfy the demand from sympathetic patrons for examples of the artist’s less formal works.

On a technical point, the watercolour has remained in a remarkably good, unfaded condition, though the low-grade laid paper employed by the artist is speckled with numerous small discolourations caused by impurities in the support. Unusually for a later work, Girtin has used touches of opaque white bodycolour to depict the river, rather than leaving the colour of the paper to show up as a highlight. Given that this is the only case of Girtin using bodycolour for an effect that is actually much easier to accomplish by leaving the paper untouched, it appears that the decision to include a river in the view was a last-minute change of mind, introduced to add variety into the composition, and this is perhaps the best evidence that we have that the work was not coloured on the spot.

(?) 1800

Lydford Castle, from the River Lyd



Bolton Abbey: The East End of the Priory Church, from across the River Wharfe



A Cloud Study


(?) 1794

A Sky Study


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 Holcroft’s unique eye-witness account of Girtin at work during the excursions they undertook in and around Paris in the early spring of 1802 is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1802 – Item 1).

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