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Works Thomas Girtin

Unidentified Ruins with a Panoramic View

1799 - 1800

Primary Image: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Unidentified Ruins with a Panoramic View, 1799–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 24.8 × 53 cm, 9 ¾ × 20 ⅞ in. Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool (WAG 3188).

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Unidentified Ruins with a Panoramic View
1799 - 1800
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
24.8 × 53 cm, 9 ¾ × 20 ⅞ in

'Girtin' lower left by Thomas Girtin; this has been changed by a later hand to read: 'Turner 1796'

Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Unidentified Landscape; Panoramic Format

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in December 2023


John Miller (c.1795–1878); his sale, Christie’s, 20 May 1858, lot 49 as ‘Abbey Ruins’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner (in the copy of the catalogue in the Archive of Christie’s, London, this is crossed out and replaced with ‘Girtin’); bought by 'Gambart', £16 16s; Ernest Gambart (1814–1902) ... John Elliot; bequeathed to the Gallery, 1917

Exhibition History

Liverpool, 1968, no.45 as 'Abbey Ruins and Distant View' by 'Follower of Thomas Girtin'

About this Work

This grievously faded panoramic view of an unidentified location was listed as by an Unknown Artist when this site first went online in October 2022. However, the chance to view the work at first hand has changed my thinking about the attribution, and though its very poor condition made the process a painful one, there is little doubt that the watercolour is indeed by Girtin. Two factors are particularly persuasive of its authenticity. Firstly, the pencil work visible in the ruins and on the balustrade of the bridge to the left features two telltale signs of Girtin’s hand. In the first instance, there is a discontinuous outline of variable thickness and density that contributes much to the overall effect and this feature, so typical of Girtin, is much more than a simple armature onto which washes of colour were added. And in the second, the descriptive function of the line is further embellished by a number of more decorative pencil marks, inventive in some cases, resembling numbers and figures of the alphabet in others, and these have become more evident as the colour washes have faded. Both graphic features are entirely characteristic of Girtin’s draughtsmanship throughout the majority of his short career. The second factor pointing to Girtin’s authorship is the inscription to the left which from a photograph I had read as ‘Turner 1796’. Whilst this was obviously a later forgery, it was only by viewing the work that it became clear that the inscription was superimposed over ‘Girtin’ and that ‘Turner’ had been added to deface and adapt a genuine signature, presumably to enhance its value on the art market. Thinking again about the faded condition of the work it is clear that this too points to an attribution to Girtin since, as was all too often the case with his later watercolours, the original pigments used in the sky and for areas of vegetation have not just faded but in some areas disappeared leaving only the masonry in the middle of the composition relatively unaffected.

The reason for the spectacular deterioration in the sky in this and the similarly proportioned Conwy Valley (TG1335) can be readily deduced from the writing of William Henry Pyne (1770–1843) who witnessed Girtin at work and noted his use of the fugitive ‘indigo and lake’ pigments for the blues, and indigo again for the grey shadows in the clouds. Pyne’s description of Girtin’s palette for the ‘greens’ of his trees and vegetation likewise contains indigo and other transient pigments including gamboge for his yellows, and together this would have been enough to account for the watercolour’s present deplorable condition.1

The attribution of the work to Girtin might have been resolved more readily had the subject not proved so elusive, if not problematic. It is not just that the location of the panoramic view out onto a valley from an elevated tree-lined situation has not been recognised, but the conjunction of ecclesiastical Gothic ruins on an eminence and an ornately balustraded bridge with no obvious watercourse to span seems highly improbable. However, given that hitherto unidentified or misidentified scenes by Girtin invariably turn out to be either obscure subjects such as Burnham Abbey (TG0300) or well know locations viewed from an unusual angle, as with Bamburgh Castle (TG1104), rather than being imaginary, I suspect that this may prove to be the case here despite the unusual combination of component elements. Indeed, such is the correspondence of both the format of the composition and the general layout of the distant landscape with Conwy Valley (TG1335) investigations into the subject might usefully begin with Girtin’s trip to North Wales in 1798.

1798 - 1799

The Conwy Valley


1795 - 1796

Part of the Ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury


1798 - 1799

Bamburgh Castle


1798 - 1799

The Conwy Valley


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 For Pyne’s informative account of Girtin’s palette and his use of fugitive vegetable pigments, see the Documents section of the Archive (1823 – Item 1).

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