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Works (?) Thomas Girtin

Wells Cathedral, from the Moat of the Bishop's Palace

(?) 1797

Primary Image: TG1283: (?) Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Wells Cathedral, from the Moat of the Bishop's Palace, (?) 1797, graphite on wove paper, 22 × 26 cm, 8 ⅝ × 10 ¼ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's (All Rights Reserved)

(?) Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Wells Cathedral, from the Moat of the Bishop's Palace
(?) 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite on wove paper
22 × 26 cm, 8 ⅝ × 10 ¼ in
Object Type
Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Gothic Architecture: Cathedral View; Somerset and Bristol

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2005


P & D Colnaghi & Co., 1951, as by Joseph Mallord William Turner; bought by Michael Ingram (1917–2005); his posthumous sale, Sotheby’s, 8 December 2005, lot 149 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner (with a saleroom notice stating 'Please note that this watercolour is by Thomas Girtin and not Joseph Mallord William Turner as stated in the catalogue'), £4,800; Guy Peppiatt Fine Art, 2017

Exhibition History

Guy Peppiatt, London, 2017 as by Joseph Mallord William Turner

About this Work

Wells: The South West Tower of the Cathedral from the Cloisters

This fine pencil sketch of Wells Cathedral, viewed from the moat of the Bishop’s Palace, appeared at an auction in 2005 attributed to Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), though a saleroom notice retracted the authorship, stating that it ‘is by Thomas Girtin’ (Exhibitions: Sotheby’s, 8 December 2005, lot 149). The original attribution was based on the suggestion that the drawing ‘appears to be one of the missing pages’ from the South Wales sketchbook in the Turner Bequest, which the auction catalogue claimed ‘is the same size’ (Tate Britain, Turner Bequest (XXVI)). In fact, the vertical measurement of this sheet is almost two centimetres larger than the pages in the Turner sketchbook, and in any case the stylistic evidence for the initial attribution is equally questionable. Indeed, the comparison with Turner’s drawing Wells: The South West Tower of the Cathedral from the Cloisters (see figure 1), proposed in the auction catalogue as an example of a work that shares its ‘style’ with this pencil drawing of the cathedral, actually provides good evidence for the identity of Girtin as its author. Thus, in contrast to the careful, if not slightly mechanical, accumulation of facts that characterises Turner’s view of the western tower, Girtin notes the details with a subtle touch that varies in tone and strength from the softest of lines to sharper points of emphasis. Then, in the foreground, where Turner loses interest in the cloister and the tombs and leaves them as simple outlines, Girtin, in contrast, decorates the scene with a series of inventive marks that have an abstract value aside from their denotative function. And, finally, there is the easily overlooked fact that whilst Turner sought out angles from which to show the cathedral and its fine Gothic detailing at their best, Girtin adopted a typically unconventional view. From a more distant viewpoint to the south, the west front, together with the crossing tower and the battlemented turrets of the remains of the thirteenth-century Bishop’s Palace, merge as a confused jumble behind a monumental wall of masonry and vegetation that obscures much of the ostensible subject of the drawing. Not surprisingly, Girtin did not receive a commission to paint a watercolour of this composition, but perhaps he did not expect one, with the drawing instead being produced as an example of his skills as a draughtsman. He produced plenty of utilitarian sketches that might plausibly be confused with Turner’s, but, unlike his contemporary, he was also capable of bravura displays of draughtsmanship, which, as here, evinces a delight in mark-making that continues to give pleasure, much in the same way that some of the more abstract passages of his watercolours do.

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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