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Works Thomas Girtin

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1711: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet, 1800–01, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 41.9 × 55.2 cm, 16 ½ × 21 ¾ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.362).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
41.9 × 55.2 cm, 16 ½ × 21 ¾ in

‘Girtin’ lower right, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Durham and Northumberland; River Scenery

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet (TG1093)
Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet (TG1094)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
161ii as 'Warkworth Castle ... Possibly started 1796-7. Finished 1798.'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2002


Edward Cohen (1816–87); then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); Thos. Agnew & Sons (stock no.1171); Walter James Redfern Turner (d.1945); his posthumous sale, Sotheby's, 2 June 1948, lot 128; bought by Thos. Agnew & Sons, £450 (stock no.6011); bought by Sabina Girtin, née Cooper (1878–1959), 1950, £350; Tom Girtin (1913–94); bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

Agnew’s, 1931, no.112; Agnew’s, 1933, no.76; Agnew’s, 1936, no.151; Agnew’s, 1949, no.81; Agnew’s, 1950, no.43, £550 with TG1093; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.58; London, 1959, no.719; London, 1962a, no.135; Reading, 1969, no.40; New Haven, 1982, III.17.; New Haven, 1986a, no.67; London, 2002, no.58 as c.1798


Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.64

About this Work

This slightly faded watercolour shows Warkworth Castle looking north west from the banks of the river Coquet, from where the defensive strength of the site might be fully appreciated, with the late fourteenth-century Great Tower to the left and the distinctive minaret-like form of the remains of the Little Stair Tower to the right. The watercolour is one of two versions of a composition (the other being TG1094) that Girtin sketched on his tour to the north east in 1796 (TG1093). Contemporary guidebooks often quoted Francis Grose’s (c.1731–91) view that the appearance of the ‘magnificent and picturesque’ ruin of Warkworth ‘does not excite the idea of one of those rugged fortresses destined solely for war, whose gloomy towers suggest to the imagination only dungeons, chains, and executions’; it was, he continued, more like an ‘ancient hospitable mansion’ (quoted in Scott, 1814, p.11). The mood of Girtin’s view of Warkworth could not be more different, however, as he created an image of stark simplicity with a bold massing of forms and a sombre palette, the effect of which may even have been enhanced by the loss of the green tones due to fading. This is particularly the case in the foreground and beyond, where the artist used a large brush to wash in dark swathes of colour that envelop the cottages that shelter under the castle walls and all but obscure the crouching nude figure who prepares to bathe in the river.

The severity of the effect is in marked contrast to that of the slightly smaller version of the composition (TG1094), which I suspect is an unfinished studio work of around 1797–98, rather than a later on-the-spot sketch as proposed by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.83). The contrast with that watercolour is just one of a number of reasons that I disagree with the dating of this work by the authors of the catalogue of Girtin’s drawings, who proposed that it was begun around 1796–97 and that the artist reworked it in 1798. The idea that the artist returned to his watercolours in order to refashion them at a later date is a common theme of theirs, but, rather than reflecting Girtin’s working practice, it generally appears to me to be a unsatisfactory explanation for why certain drawings do not fit into their rigid stylistic periods. In this case, I suspect that the work is just a straightforward later version of the 1796 composition, made around 1800–1801, and I therefore wish to amend the date I gave in the catalogue of Girtin’s 2002 bicentenary exhibition (Smith, 2002b, p.84). The key stylistic point of comparison that helps to confirm this is A Distant View of Guisborough Priory (TG1699), with its very similar foreground. Girtin did not sketch that subject until 1800 (TG1612), and this watercolour must therefore date from later than the 1798 previously proposed.

When this site was first launched I questioned the attribution of another view of Warkworth (see figure 1) which with some reservations had always been given to Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). The twilight effect employed in the composition resulted, I argued, in a simplified composition more akin to Girtin’s work and the resemblance was compounded by the watercolour’s over-heated condition that all too often betrays his use of the fugitive indigo pigment. The existence of a pencil sketch of the subject by Turner, dating from his 1797 northern tour (see figure 2), also seemed to fit the common pattern whereby a Girtin sketch (in this case untraced) inspired Turner to take the same view. However, the chance to finally view the drawing has prompted a rethink. The use of a smooth wove paper, the lack of any characteristic flourishes in the underlying pencil work and the substantial addition of detail using pen and ink more than outweighs any superficial resemblance to Girtin’s work and anything other than an unequivocal attribution to Turner is now unthinkable. All in all, a salutary reminder of the dangers of working solely from an image.1

1797 - 1798

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet


(?) 1796

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet


1797 - 1798

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet


1800 - 1801

A Distant View of Guisborough Priory; The Tithe Barn, Abbotsbury


(?) 1800

Guisborough Priory: The Ruined East End


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 My thanks to Mark Griffith-Jones of Sotheby’s for showing me the work.

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