Scarcely had Turner accomplished his first fine works in water colours, when an artist of rival powers appeared in the late Thomas Girtin. In the same year the council-room of the Royal Academy, then first appropriated to the reception of drawings, exhibited the Caernarvon Castle of Turner, and the Beth Gellert of Girtin, besides other fine works from each of those artists. Turner’s works were the most admired for sentiment, and Girtin’s for boldness and spirit: yet each adhered so closely to nature, and possessed such original merit, that it became difficult to decide which was the greater genius. The dissimilarity of style, in no small degree, depended upon the paper: Turner preferred the white wove paper, and Girtin the cartridge; Turner united the highest finishing with his beautiful effect, whilst Girtin aimed at effect and colour alone. Many mountainous scenes from the pencil of Girtin have a character of light, shadow, and colour, of unrivalled excellence. Contrary to the practice of the artists who preceded him in his walk, he commonly made his back-grounds dark and grand; and the effect of the mountain storm perhaps was never so well described as in his works: all his incidents of light and shadow were marked with the truth of nature. The views of many of our cities, towns, castles, cathedrals, &c. were treated by his pencil in a manner entirely his own; a depth of shadow, a brilliancy of light, and a magical splendour of colour, characterised his drawings, and displayed a vigour of inherent genius that promised to raise the art to the highest summit of excellence. In the works of too many artists we perceive only the labour of the hand, but in Girtin the hand was obviously directed by superior mental power and capacity.
The premature death of this highly gifted artist, has left the world of taste to deplore his loss, not only on the score of his talents, but from a feeling of esteem for the candour and generosity with which he communicated all he knew of his art, and the earnest desire which he evinced for its general improvement. After suffering from an asthmatic complaint for nearly three years, Girtin was advised to try the climate of the Continent; and during his visit at Paris, he made a series of drawings of that city, which were etched in soft ground by himself, on his return to England, and aquatinted by the Lewis’s, and form a folio work, that will remain a monument of honour to himself and the arts of his country. Not experiencing any benefit from the change of climate, he remained but a few months in France; and it must be lamented, that when there his constitution was so much weakened, as to prevent his making many studies in the open air; and, on his return home, his health so rapidly declined, that he produced but very few works; yet those, to the very last subject, which he left incomplete, betrayed no symptom of decline in his genius, and prove, that although the corporeal part was fast sinking to the grave, the mental part was unimpaired. Girtin died on the 9th of Nov. 1802, at the early age of twenty-seven, and was interred in the burial-ground of St. Paul’s Covent-Garden.
The facility with which this artist executed his coloured studies from nature, surprised all those who accompanied him on his travels, and who witnessed his practice. Perhaps no artist was so little careful in the choice of his materials; any sort of paper, however coarse its fabric, or however absorbent its texture, was the same to him: and such was the magic of his pencil, that, although it was not uncommon to have a crease intersecting the sky of a finished landscape, in a vertical line, which produced a sinking of the colour that obviously marked so great a defect; yet the world became so enamoured of his beautiful colouring, and stupendous effect of light and shadow, that this carelessness of the artist formed no impediment to the sale of his works.
For some few years previous to the decease of Girtin, a little society was established, of which he was a member, if not the projector, who met alternately at each other’s apartment one evening in the week during the winter, for the laudable and friendly purpose of mutual improvement. A slight code of laws was formed for the regulation of the society: one invariable and excellent rule was, that a landscape should be chosen from the descriptive part of some poem, and that each member should produce a drawing from it. The passage to be described, was written upon as many slips of paper as there were members, so that each might have no excuse for a departure from the subject. The ancient and modern poets furnished abundant materials for the exercise of their talents; and many beautiful sketches, in sepia, or some other powerful colour, were produced on these evenings. The drawings became the property of the member at whose apartment they were made, in regular rotation, by which means each became, in the course of a season, possessed of a valuable portfolio. It should be observed, that their society did not confine its members to professors of the art; amateurs of taste were incorporated, and visitors were admitted, upon condition of making a drawing for the evening conformably to the existing regulation. The members of this society were, Girtin, Samuel, Francia, Worthington, Underwood, Sir R. K. Porter, Munn, Hayward, Denham, and others, whose works have since contributed to advance this art to its present unrivalled state of perfection.
John Hassell, Aqua Pictura: Illustrated by a Series of Original Specimens from the Works of Messrs Payne, Munn, Francia, Samuel, Varley, Wheatley, Young, Cristall, Cartwright, Girtin, Clennell, Cox, Prout, Hills, DeWint, Owen, Glover, Turner, Loutherbourg &c. &c. Exhibiting the Works of the Most Approved Modern Water Coloured Draftsmen, with Their Style & Method of Touch, Engraved and Finished in Progressive Examples (Hassell, 1811–13)
The text accompanying Tattershall Castle (see print after TG1031) notes:
The pencil of Mr. Girtin was of so superior a quality in its line, that few artists of his day were able to surpass. He was a pupil of Mr Dayes, whose style he forsook at an early period, bursting like a meteor upon the public. He may be said to have been the projector of the new school of water-colour painters. It was to his example we are indebted for the works of the ingenious J. M. W. Turner, Esq R. A. Besides his valuable drawings, he has left behind him a series of prints – Views in Paris, – certainly not excelled even by Canaletti. In his disposition he was frank and communicative to his friends; relating all that his practice produced; and by whom his memory will ever be revered.
Tattershall Castle, from the South West