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Works Thomas Girtin

Warkworth Hermitage

(?) 1796

Primary Image: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Warkworth Hermitage, (?) 1796, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 25.5 × 30.4 cm, 10 × 12 in. Private Collection, USA.

Photo courtesy of Private Collection

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Warkworth Hermitage
(?) 1796
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
25.5 × 30.4 cm, 10 × 12 in
Object Type
On-the-spot Colour Sketch
Subject Terms
Durham and Northumberland; Trees and Woods

Warkworth Hermitage (TG1096)
Warkworth Hermitage (TG1097)
Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2016


Thomas Girtin (1775–1802); his posthumous sale, possibly Christie’s, 1 June 1803, lot 54 as 'A Mill and Warkworth Hermitage, Studies from Nature', £2 18s; ... Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, 7th Baronet (1773–1828); then by descent; Sotheby's, 6 July 2016, lot 340; bought by James Mackinnon Fine Art, £27,500; private collection, USA

About this Work

This colour sketch of the curious late fourteenth-century chapel hewn into rock overlooking the river Coquet, known as the Warkworth Hermitage, was almost certainly made in 1796 on Girtin’s first independent sketching tour. Only one of the twenty or so pencil drawings and on-the-spot colour sketches that survive from the trip is dated, but it is still broadly possible to trace Girtin’s progress through Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and the Scottish Borders from the titles of the works that he sent to the 1797 Royal Academy exhibition, and from the dated watercolours that were subsequently produced from these and other untraced sketches. In this case, Girtin produced two studio watercolours from his sketch of the hermitage (TG1096 and TG1097), and, though the former is dated 1798, the fact that another view of Warkworth was published as an engraving in May 1797 (see print after TG1099) confirms the early date of this sketch.

Establishing a reliable date assumes a particular significance in this case, because although Girtin’s colour sketches from nature had hitherto included examples of small pencil drawings that had been partly coloured, such as Richmond Castle and Bridge, from the River Swale (TG1063), as well as larger sheets that were worked more extensively in monochrome, including Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church (TG1105), the study of the hermitage is altogether of a different order. Perhaps the work’s most significant new feature is the evident speed of its execution, which is calculated to capture a rapidly changing light effect. Whole areas of the drawing are left unfinished and the restricted palette of just a few tones of green and brown evinces the practical limitations imposed by working out of doors against the clock. In other areas, such as the foreground and indeed the foliage in general, the wash has been applied with rapid, fluid and broad brushstrokes, which have stained the paper in patterns that are only partly descriptive and where the artist was apparently happy to trust to an element of chance. Then there is the pencil underdrawing, which is both very slight and, in places, independent of the washes applied over it. The lines are not descriptive and do not even fix the broad areas of colour, as everything is subordinated to the search for the equivalent in a watery medium of the impression of a secluded spot illuminated by bright daylight. One final telltale sign of a work done at speed in the open is what appears to be a thumbprint in the bottom left-hand corner, where Girtin literally left his mark as he inadvertently handled the still wet sketch.

The reason for Girtin’s departure from his common sketching practice of working around a basic armature of lines can, I suggest, be accounted for by the nature of the subject. The so-called hermitage is a fifteen-minute walk from the castle at Warkworth – the main site of the artist’s sketching on the 1796 tour – and Girtin would have had to take a boat to cross the river to begin the time-consuming business of sketching in colour on a large scale. All of this suggests that an artist who was not known for going out of his way for a subject had a commission to produce a finished watercolour of the well-known site. The key point is that unlike the subjects of the majority of his studio watercolours at this date, this sequestered woodland scene was not of the predominantly architectural character for which a simple pencil outline or monochrome sketch would have sufficed. Girtin’s new practice of making on-the-spot colour sketches in 1796 therefore stemmed from a realisation that a landscape watercolour in which architecture played at best a subsidiary role required a different working practice in the field if it was to replicate such complex effects as an embowered cave illuminated by bright light reflecting off a river.


Warkworth Hermitage


1798 - 1799

Warkworth Hermitage


1796 - 1797

The Bridge at Warkworth, with the Castle Beyond


(?) 1796

Richmond Castle and Bridge, from the River Swale


(?) 1796

Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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