1 January 1823

William Bernard Cooke, Soho Square, London, Exhibition of Drawings and Engravings, 1823 (Exhibitions: London, 1823)

The exhibition, held at 9 Soho Square, includes seven works by Thomas Girtin (the catalogue notes that ‘Drawings which are to be disposed of are marked by an *’):

  • 9 – ‘Cottage Scene in the vicinity of Leatherhead. In the possession of Dr Monro’
  • 16 – ‘Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea. An admirable specimen of the Artist’ (TG1740)
  • 17* – ‘Ancient Crypt of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate’
  • 126* – ‘Ruins of an Abbey’
  • 149 – ‘Dunstanborough Castle. In the possession of John Swinburne’ (TG1102)
  • 176 – ‘Bamborough Castle’ (TG1103)
  • 203 – ‘A Country Church’

1 January 1823

‘The Arts’, The Sun, 1 January 1823, p.5

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the anonymous writer acclaims ‘some Drawings also by GIRTIN, an Artist of great talents, who died almost in the bloom of youth’.

5 January 1823

‘Exhibition in Soho-Square, of Water-Colour Paintings, Drawings and Engravings’, The Examiner, 5 January 1823, pp.10–11

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the writer Robert Hunt (active 1808–50) acclaims the first appearance in public of Girtin’s Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea) (TG1740):

Mr. GIRTIN, on the other hand, has in 16, Chelsea Reach, obtained an effective purpose by a few bold forms, in a strong mass of shade and much middle tint.

11 January 1823

‘Exhibition of Drawings and Engravings by British Artists: No. 9, Soho-Square’, The Museum; or Record of Literature, 11 January 1823, p.29

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the writer notes that there ‘are some very fine and bold specimens of Girtin’.

15 January 1823

‘The Fine Arts’, The Times, 15 January 1823, p.3 (repeated in The Evening Mail, 15–17 January 1823)

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the author picks out number 9, ‘Cottage Scene in the Vicinity of Leatherhead’, for its ‘Great truth and freedom’.

18 January 1823

‘Exhibition of Drawings and Engravings, Soho Square’, The Literary Register, 18 January 1823, p.44

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the anonymous author selects Girtin’s Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea) (TG1740) for special mention:

Landscapes by Girtin, next attract us. This artist’s works are pretty numerous, so we may here give them a general and final consideration. His best pictures are too slight, but they evince a glowing imagination, and altogether a future promise which we may rationally regret he did not allow himself life to fulfil. Those from his pencil, now under our eye, are even slighter than his studied efforts, yet they will be found to possess the stamp we have generally put on all he did. The view of ‘Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea,’ is certainly the ‘admirable specimen of this artist,’ in the present collection.

27 January 1823

‘Exhibition, Soho-Square’, The Morning Chronicle, 27 January 1823, p.3

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the author selects two works for praise:

9. Cottage Scene, GIRTIN – Drawn in a free and correct style, but without vigour of colouring.

16. Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea, T. GIRTIN. – An excellent specimen of a clear cool tone of colouring, and the sober charm of unaffected nature.

January 1823

The Lady’s Magazine, new series, vol.3 (January 1823), pp.51–52

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the anonymous author contributes the longest notice of Girtin’s efforts:

Among the works of the deceased artists, those of Girtin stand pre-eminent in excellence; his style, like that of Wilson, is grand, broad, and true; he had the rare faculty of seizing upon the essence of what constitutes grandeur and beauty in nature, without the labour of minute detail. No. 16, ‘Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea’, is an admirable example of his style, and contains more of the poetry of art than all the labored productions of Paul Potter and his school: 149 is another fine specimen of this lamented artist, who died in the very prime of his life, leaving proofs of a genius that might have placed him at the highest point of his profession: 147, ‘Dunstanborough Castle,’ in the possession of Sir J. Swinburne, bart. is one of his finest drawings, and may be classed with the epic of landscape; the scene is grand, the chiaro oscuro wild, solemn, and effective; the colour deep, and the execution broad and firm: and there are other drawings from the hand of this lamented genius, all bearing the stamp of that divine source from which he drew nature.

January 1823

‘Exhibition of Drawings and Engravings by British Artists, Soho-Square’, The European Magazine, vol.83 (January 1823), p.55

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the anonymous author suggests that:

The Exhibition is affluent in the works of this father of transparent water-colour painting; there being no fewer than eight; every one a treasure. Were we called upon to select any of them we should, perhaps, give the preference to the ‘Cottage Scene in the vicinity of Leatherhead,’ and ‘Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea.’ The fulness and fluency and sappines of Girton’s pencil, and the apparent ease with which he produced the most powerful and faithful effects of nature by ordinary and simple means, have, in our opinion never been rivalled.

Continuing to comment on the exhibition the writer concludes that it contains ‘some noble proofs of the pure style of Thomas Girtin; a name that must be for ever dear to the true lovers of English landscape’.

10 February 1823

‘Exhibition in Soho Square of Water-Colour Paintings, Drawings, and Engravings’, The Examiner, 10 February 1823, p.107

Reviewing William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) second exhibition at Soho Square, the writer Robert Hunt (active 1808–50) singles out Bamburgh Castle for particular praise (TG1103):

A feeling above common nature is produced by the common nature Views of Mr. GIRTIN; they are executed with such a palpable facility of hand and fervour of mind. A little Sienna, neutral tint, and blue, give all that we can expect in the subjects, not only in 17, Ancient Crypt of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, scarred and crumbling with ‘grey and bald antiquity,’ but in a superior scene, 176, Banborough Castle, which, from the large Titian-like character of the clouds – the sweeping and rock-dashing movement of the water – rises into grandeur.

1 May 1823

Charles Turner’s (1774–1857) mezzotint on steel Rainbow, a Scene on the Exe (see print after TG1730) is published in William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) Gems of Art (Cooke, 1823, part 1, plate 4)

23 June 1823

Society of Painters in Water Colours, London, A Selection of Drawings by British Artists, 1823 (Exhibitions: SPWC, 1823)

The exhibition organised by the Society includes a substantial group of works by Thomas Girtin:

  • 5 – ‘Landscape'. Lent by 'W. Wells esq.’
  • 9 – ‘Landscape'. Lent by 'W. Wells esq.’
  • 18 – ‘Coast Scene'. Lent by 'Earl of Essex
  • 21 – ‘Mid-day'. Lent by 'W. Leader, esq. M. P.
  • 40 – ‘Durham'.Lent by 'E. H. Locker, esq. F. R. S.’ (TG1075)
  • 47 – ‘Morpeth'. Lent by 'W. Wells, esq.’ (TG1709)
  • 59 – ‘A Sketch'. Lent by 'Earl of Essex
  • 61 – ‘Peterborough Cathedral'. Lent by 'J. Vine esq.’ (TG1020)
  • 70 – ‘Bolton Abbey'. Lent by 'W. Leader, esq. M. P.
  • 80 – ‘View in France'. Lent by 'Earl of Essex
  • 97 – ‘Town Scene'. Lent by 'Earl of Essex
  • 101 – ‘Bamborough Castle'. Lent by 'Earl of Essex
  • 108* – ‘Jedborough'. Lent by 'W. Wells, esq.’ (the asterisk denotes that this was a second work numbered 108)
  • 122 – ‘Rivaux Abbey'. Lent by 'E. H. Locker, esq. F. R. S.’ (TG1056)
  • 130 – ‘An Abbey'. Lent by 'Earl of Essex
  • 162 – ‘Town Scene'. Lent by 'J. Allnutt, esq.
  • 198 – ‘Melrose Abbey'. Lent by 'W. Leader, esq. M. P.
  • 199 – ‘Litchfield Cathedral'. Lent by 'J. Vine, esq.’ (TG1003)
  • 203 – ‘Bridgenorth'. Lent by 'W. Leader, esq. M. P.’ (TG1755)
  • 206 – ‘Sketch'. Lent by 'T. Tomkison, esq.

23 June 1823

‘Fine Arts. Water-Colour Exhibition’, The Times, 23 June 1823, p.3

Reviewing the exhibition organised by the Society of Painters in Water Colours, the writer notes that there ‘are also a number of clever drawings by Girtin … which add greatly to the gratification which every lover of art must derive from this highly interesting selection’.

July 1823

The European Magazine, and London Review, vol.84 (July 1823), p.52

Reviewing the exhibition organised by the Society of Painters in Water Colours, the author picks out:

No.18. Coast Scene. T. GIRTIN. – The property of W. Leader, Esq. M. P. An extensive bird’s-eye view, possessing all the truth and freshness by which this great artist’s pencil was distinguished. The diversity of effect communicated to the several head-lands as they approach the eye, is singularly pleasing.

19 July 1823

The Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., no.339 (19 July 1823), p.463

An advertisement for the prints for William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) Gems of Art (Cooke, 1823) notes that they ‘are published as single Prints, to be had separately, the whole to form one volume of 36 Plates, from Pictures of acknowledged excellence, beauty, and variety, by esteemed artists of all ages and countries’. It particularly notes Thomas Lupton’s (1791–1873) mezzotint Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (see print after TG1740 no.2), ‘from an admirable Drawing by Girtin, now in the Exhibition of Drawings, 9, Soho-square – Prints 4s, Proofs 6s, India paper Proofs 7s 6d each’.

1 August 1823

Thomas Lupton’s (1791–1873) mezzotint on steel Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (see print after TG1740 no.2) is published in William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) Gems of Art (Cooke, 1823, part 2, plate 7).

29 August 1823

William Bernard Cooke, Account Book (Thornbury, 1862, vol.2, p.424)

The book records a payment to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) of two guineas for ‘Touching Chelsea Reach’ (see print after TG1740 no.2), a mezzotint executed by Thomas Lupton (1791–1873) after Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1740) for William Bernard Cooke’s (1778–1855) Gems of Art (Cooke, 1823). It also notes another payment to Turner of two guineas for working on ‘Girtin’s Kirkstone’ (see print after TG1636 no.2), a mezzotint by William Say (1768–1834) after Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning (TG1636) for the Rivers of England (republished as The River Scenery of England, 1827).

August 1823

La Belle Assemblée, vol.28 (August 1823), p.87

Reviewing the exhibition organised by the Society of Painters in Water Colours, the anonymous author notes that ‘Several sweet sketches by the lamented Girtin also ornament these walls’.

8 November 1823

Anonymous [William Henry Pyne], ‘The Rise and Progress of Water-Colour Painting in England: No. I’, Somerset House Gazette, and Literary Museum, vol.1, 8 November 1823, pp.65–67 (Pyne, 1823a) (1823 – Item 1)

TURNER AND GIRTIN.—The efforts which had been made in the water-colour department of landscape and topographical painting, before the appearance of William Mallard Turner and Thomas Girtin, amounted to little more than to produce correct views of abbeys, castles, ancient towns, and noblemen’s seats. These subjects, however, were handled with no mean skill by Paul Sandby, whose memory is regarded with veneration by the present school, who have raised so fine a superstructure upon the foundation which he laid.

Michael Angelo Rooker must also be named with respect, as having contributed to the improvement of this art. He had an excellent eye for the picturesque. Many of his representations of ancient remains are drawn with that truth and characteristic detail, which, whatever might be wanting to complete his works, touching their general effect, are yet sufficiently interesting to hold a due rank in the portfolio of the connoisseur. The views of the colleges on the Oxford Almanac, which were drawn and engraved by this artist, alone would remain sufficient testimony of his abilities. He was the son of Edward Rooker, also an artist in the same walk, who placed Michael Angelo under the tuition of Paul Sandby.

Thomas Hearne, another ingenious artist, whose talent in the topographical department fairly includes him amongst the founders of our school of water-colour painting, was much admired in his day; and we still recur to his beautiful and chaste drawings with delight. Nothing can be more faithful to their prototypes than some of the abbey-gates and castellated towers—existing remains of ancient architecture—which he made the subjects for his pencil. The mouldering walls; the remnants of carved porches; the elegant windows, with their mutilated columns, are represented in his small drawings, with a pictorial charm, that, we believe, has contributed greatly to that rage for topographical collecting, which has of late so much enriched the cabinets of our nobility and gentry, and others who have acquired a taste for such elegant pursuits.

John Cozens, of respected memory, is another who helped to found a British school for this modern art. His drawings, however, have a different, and perhaps more original—at least a more poetic character—than any of the works of the preceding worthies. His compositions embraced the vastness of nature, in her grand combinations of mountains, woods, and lakes, and struck out a style of effect that has been said to be the precursor to the ultimate superiority of water-colour painting, which was reserved for Turner and Girtin to attain.

It should be observed, that this is rather said in justice to the talent of Cozens, than to lessen the merits of these two superior artists, to whose works Cozens’s, as regards the term paintings, bear no comparison,—his being at most little more than merely tinted chiaro-scuro, similar to mezzo-tinto prints thinly washed with colours.

Thus we have briefly named those few ingenious men, whose efforts, from about the middle of the last century at farthest, have produced works in water-colours, worthy the name of art. All that had been done in this material by Pillement, Chattelain, and others, in the early part of the century, being principally pasticios, or compositions from Italian, Flemish, and Dutch prints, hatched in black chalk, and tinted; or drawings with penned outlines, shadowed with Indian ink, and washed with thin colour. We shall, however, reserve a more particular notice of these humble labourers in the uncultured era of taste, to a future number of these essays, and offer our observations on the respective merits of Turner and Girtin.

Among the worst reflections that can be cast upon a civilized age, is that of its having neglected to pay due regard to the talents of contemporaneous genius. The approaches to excellence in any art, are generally too slow and steadily progressive, to excite much admiration in him who takes an unusual stride. Indeed, the pursuits of genius are little regarded by the great mass of society: hence it remains for the enlightened few, the wealthy, and the learned, to seek for merit, and to reward it when it is found.

Happily this reproach cannot be fixed upon the generation that witnessed the progress of these two artists, whose pursuits, whilst youths, were so congenial as to the end, yet so dissimilar in practice. They each struck out a new path, leading to the same goal.

Turner was well grounded in perspective, under Malton. Girtin became an adept in the same science, under the tuition of Dayes. Each left his preceptor in art an immeasurable distance behind.

Dr. Munro, long known as an amateur artist, and great collector of drawings, was in no small degree instrumental to the advancement of these youths, particularly to Turner. The Doctor’s collection, which contained some of the choicest works of Cozens and Hearne, was open to them; and they, with a laudable spirit of competition, and an ardent love of their profession, availed themselves of the advantage. Many copies made by Messrs. Girtin and Turner, under the roof of Dr. Munro, whilst considerably under age, were so admirable for freedom and correctness, that they were not unfrequently preferred to the originals from which they had been taken.

Thus, having acquired a knowledge of the executive department of drawing, our youthful artists, like Claude, the Poussins, and the illustrious landscape painters of old, sought nature in those recesses where she loves to hold communion with her votaries, whether painter or poet, and copied her in her native beauty.

It should be observed, that the term, studying from nature, in the sense with which it is applied to this art, implies the drawing or painting of animate and inanimate objects, whether natural or artificial, from the objects themselves, in contradistinction to copying them from the works of other artists, from memory, or from description. And herein consists the main difference between painting and poetry. To paint from nature, the artist must not only have an accurate knowledge of the form, but some acquaintance with the structure of the object represented. Not so with the poet. To describe a storm at sea, the poet carries the imagination of his reader up mighty waves in his labouring bark, and hurries it down again into a fearful abyss of waters: yet, however finely he paints his description, he may not have seen a ship, or have been within sight of rocks or waves.

The painter, however, must not only have witnessed the ocean in its rage, and the vessel borne upon its foaming surface, but have studied the colour, form, and texture of the liquid element, and know the structure of the mighty piece of moving architecture that awfully rolls along.

Turner’s commencement from nature, was the depicting scenes whose principal features were remains of ancient architecture. We remember his earliest topographical drawings: these had all the correctness of Hearne, with an endeavour to superadd that which his prototype did not attempt,—the representation of local colour. His first efforts, though somewhat crude, gave presage of his superior feeling; for every stone, and brick, and tile on his buildings were varied in their respective tints. He had already, to use the phrase of a departed artist, learned to read nature.

Girtin was proceeding with the same observant eye to nature, and equally attentive to that captivating quality, local colour. These two aspiring geniuses, emulous without envy, were developing new properties in the material with which they wrought their elegant imitations of nature, and raising the practice of water colours, which had hitherto procured no higher title for the best works of its professors, than tinted drawings, to the rank and character of paintings in water colours. Thus these two distinguished artists, improving rapidly, as by inspiration, whilst young men, achieved the honour of founding that English school, as it now stands recorded, the admiration of all nations.

It might be supposed that similarity of study, at their commencement, and the apparent affinity of feeling for their art, would have led these young painters to practice in a similar style. On the contrary, such is original talent, nothing can be less like than the drawings of Turner and Girtin. We do not court comparisons, but their works are frequently as remote, in general character, as Salvator Rosa, and Claude de Lorraine.

But here we must again compare the pursuits of our artists, and that with painful recollections of Thomas Girtin. His contemporary, Turner, continued to pursue his art with that philosophic spirit, which becomes the great and good, whilst his ingenious friend sunk into habits, which genius only renders more pitiable, and by self-indulgence, lost his energies in the ratio of his declining health. He died, alas! at that early age, which had only afforded him the power of showing, that had he lived, and been discreet, we might have boasted, instead of one incomparable genius in this walk, the two greatest landscape painters in the world.

Girtin made his drawings, with but few exceptions, on cartridge paper. He chose this material, as his aim was to procure a bold and striking chiaro-scuro, with splendour of colour, and without attention to detail. Some of his happiest productions display these qualities, united with magnificent effect. Certain of his topographical views, are treated with an originality of feeling that cannot fail to captivate the artist and the connoisseur. Many of his works, however, betray a carelessness of execution, and an inattention to proportions and to form, which requires something of prejudice in favour of originality, to tolerate or endure.

His mountainous scenery was oftentimes treated with grandeur of effect, obviously assuring us that he had been an attentive observer of those sublime appearances, created by storms and vapours, which occur in those elevated regions. He was one of those daring imitators of nature, who ventured to represent a mass of mountains, dark, and darker still as they receded into the distance, a figure of painting which none but the most poetic mind would presume to introduce in a composition. The flatness and freshness with which he described the vallies, extending to the basis of their surrounding heights, he imitated with a felicity that perhaps has never been exceeded. The distant herds, too, which he introduced grazing on these plains, were so near to what we have seen, when a gleam of light has penetrated a parting cloud, so many gems, glittering on the verdant meads.

This artist prepared his drawings on the same principle which had hitherto been confined to painting in oil, namely, laying in the object upon his paper, with the local colour, and shadowing the same with the individual tint of its own shadow. Previous to the practice of Turner and Girtin, drawings were shadowed first entirely through, whatever their component parts—houses, castles, trees, mountains, fore-grounds, middle-grounds, and distances, all with black or grey, and these objects were afterwards stained, or tinted, enriched and finished, as is now the custom to colour prints. It was this new practice, introduced by these distinguished artists, that acquired for designs in watercolours upon paper, the title of paintings: a designation which many works of the existing school decidedly merit, as we lately beheld in the Exhibition of the Painters in Water Colours, where pictures of this class were displayed in gorgeous frames, bearing out in effect against the mass of glittering gold, as powerfully as pictures in oil.

We beg, however, in saying thus much to the credit of this new art, to observe, that we confine ourselves to the landscape and topographical department; for there are subjects for imitation, in the vast scope of painting, which to represent with due force, and that local truth which they demand, extends far beyond that scale, which water-colours can ever be expected to reach. The splendour and depth of Reynolds, could only be obtained by the materials with which he wrought. Girtin’s admirers tolerated a defect in his drawings, which proves how much allowance the liberal connoisseur will make for the sake of genius. The paper which he most admired was only to be had of a stationer at Charing Cross; this was cartridge, with slight wire marks, and folded like foolscap or post. It commonly happened that the part which had been folded, when put on the stretching frame, would sink into spots in a line, entirely across the centre of the sky; so that where the crease had been, the colour was so many degrees of a darker blue than the general tone of the sky. This unsightly accident was not only overlooked, but in some instances really admired, inasmuch, that it was taken for a sign of originality, and in the transfer of his drawings from one collector to another, bore a premium, according to that indubitable mark. We shall offer some observations on the method of study, and the process for colouring, as practised by these distinguished artists, in our next number.

15 November 1823

Anonymous [William Henry Pyne], ‘The Rise and Progress of Water-Colour Painting in England: No. II’, Somerset House Gazette, and Literary Museum, vol.1, 15 November 1823, pp.81–84 (Pyne, 1823b) (1823 – Item 2)

TURNER AND GIRTIN.—Doctor Johnson has observed, it would surprise those who were not in the habit of thinking deeply on the progress of human understanding, to be told how few, among men of talent and science, have added anything new to the stock of general information. There is great truth in this observation; for, indeed, on reviewing what has been done in any preceding age, one is surprised to find how little has been added in the succeeding. Few invent, many imitate, and some improve. But in reverting to the winding up of a reign, when the historian having ended his relation of coronations, royal marriages, royal pageants, religious schisms, and battles, and finds a spare page to record the discoveries and improvements in arts and sciences, how short a catalogue is formed of the names of those who have added much that is new to the public stock of general information.

Bacon, Boyle and Newton, Spencer, Shakspeare and Milton, Jones, Wren and Rennie, Harvey, Sydenham and Hunter, Purcell and Arne, Reynolds, Wilson and Gainsborough, Betterton, Garrick and Barry, and a few other illustrious men, seem to comprehend the almost entire honours of their respective arts. Thousands of good and ingenious men have followed in their paths, but who have left themselves a name like unto these?

As it relates to the Fine Arts, however, it is something to record, that the invention of painting in Water Colours, certainly one of the most elegant and interesting studies that has emanated from human ingenuity, is of English birth, of English growth, and in our soil has arrived to maturity. Hence, wrapt in agreeable reveries as to its future renown, we are willing to indulge in the amusing thought, that hereafter the graphic works wrought in this material, may become objects of connoisseurship to future collectors, and a Turner and a Girtin, a Havell and a Varley, a Christall and a Fielding, may excite as eager biddings at a sale some two centuries hence, with as much chit-chat touching their ancient authors, as we sometimes listen to at Christie’s, on the putting up a Rembrandt, or a Claude!

But to turn from these reveries, and to proceed steadily:—as we are pledged to give an analysis of the different styles of the professors of this art, we shall re-commence with Messrs. Turner and Girtin.

We have lived long enough, and have, without vain egotism be it said, been observant of the progress of this art from the epoch, when the genius of these two artists dawned upon the horizon of improving taste, to the period of the last drawing that Turner added to the collection of a friend and connoisseur. We can therefore speak with the confidence of contemporary observation.

We had frequently in common with other observers of the beautiful and interesting effects of nature, as contemplated at the break of day, or at evening twilight, expressed our surprise that none of the artists who paint in water colours, should have aimed at an imitation of these pictorial appearances. When the reason, from those who were considered the most competent to speak upon the question, was, ‘the powers of water colours are not sufficient to represent such depths of tone; indeed the attempt would be vain and fruitless. It is in oil painting alone, that such solemn effects can be depicted.’ This fiat too long was received as conclusive—but who is to set bounds to the capabilities of genius and research! It was fortunate for art that these two original minded young artists could think for themselves, and having this faculty, that they were gifted with correspondent energies to act.

Girtin sketched a picturesque part of an ancient town—he drew the outline at broad day, and had purposed to colour the scene as it then appeared: but in passing near the spot, at the going down of the sun, and perceiving the buildings under the influence of twilight, had assumed so unexpected a mass of shadow, on the fading light of the sky, and that the reflexions in the water, still encreased the vastness of the mass; moreover, that the arches of a bridge opposed their distinct forms, dark also, to a bright gleam on the horizon; he was so possessed with the solemn grandeur of the composition, which had gained so much in sentiment by the change of light, that he determined to make an attempt at imitation, and by ardent application, accomplished the object. This piece was wrought with bold and masterly execution, and led to that daring style of effect which he subsequently practised with so much success, in certain of his works; and which promised so much more, than his hand, enfeebled by excesses, enabled him to accomplish. Nothing could exceed the grandeur and originality of his conception, in light and shadow, for from his habit of looking at nature, clothed in her morning and her evening robe, he could throw either garb over his own landscape compositions, at his will.

But that vicious course which makes a wreck of the body, cannot fail to ruin the mind;—the continued sensual indulgence of this extraordinary young man, enfeebled his mental powers, and the distinguished competitor of Turner, the thoughtless, kind-hearted Girtin, by a premature death, haply, alas! but saved his posthumous fame from the imputation of his sinking into a mannerist.

Girtin had many imitators, like Gainsborough; though capable of drawing with masterly precision, he affected a style, which the further it was cultivated, the more remotely it departed from correctness in delineation. This defect in taste, as we humbly conceive, though his works convey so much of poetic imagination, was considered by real judges of art, a drawback to his merit. We profess to hold, with all our admiration for originality of feeling, that the works which claim lasting honours for their authors, be they painters, poets, architects, or sculptors, are those which combine the most of all the highest properties of their respective arts; for, that happy skill which some few extraordinary geniuses have exhibited, in leaving the imagination of the spectator to finish that which they thought difficult to describe, borders at best upon a dexterous trick, which too often repeated, lessens the performer in the opinion of him who, coming prepared to admire, until he hesitates whether he shall not bestow censure instead of applause.

The eccentricities exhibited in certain works of Girtin, as to form, proportion, and general contour, and the admiration bestowed by the zealots who mistake all that is new, in a man of great talent, for all that is great, induced a number of blockheads to attempt the Girtin manner. It was really through the pasticcios of the best of his imitators, that the fallacy of some of his latter works was exposed. The violence of opposition of cold to warm tints, the light building upon the dark sky, and vice versa, the dark building on the light sky; with shapeless structures, intended for architecture, nondescript trees, and vast spaces, animated with cows and sheep, like stocks and stones, and stumps and human figures, of almost the same colour, form and texture, were multiplied by these imitators, until the superior and original intellect which had first ventured upon those incoherencies of style, was mixed up in the impression excited by the base counterfeits, until that which had astonished and delighted, was in the way of exciting less admiration than disgust.

Poor Dayes, the preceptor of Girtin, in temper, ‘neither amiable nor happy,’ could never forgive his disciple, for becoming so mightily his superior in art. If a severe critique had been wanting on the defects of his style, Dayes, who had a most caustic wit, would have written it con amore, for the first, or the worst journal that offered. Once—it was but a short period before his envied pupil’s decease,—that he happened to call on a collector of drawings, an old drivelling dilletante who patronised every dashing style, and saw a smart portfolio, inscribed in gilt letters, with the name of one of Girtin’s closest imitators. ‘What have we here?’ said Dayes. ‘They are some works of a pupil of your old disciple,’ said the collector.—‘Pray, Mr. Dayes, look at them and favor me with your opinion.’ Dayes untied the portfolio, and on beholding the first subject, which was a large drawing, a mountainous scene, among the lakes in Cumberland; he exclaimed, in his emphatic manner, ‘O ye Gods! the blue-bag—the blue-bag!’ Dayes was a man of quick discernment, and very pointed in his remarks. Nothing could be more characteristic of the drawing, and indeed of the whole collection. The collector laughed immoderately. Dayes, encouraged by this first essay of his wit, proceeded, commenting most ludicrously on each drawing as it came to view, still making the burden of his song—‘O the blue bag!’

‘So,’ said he, ‘because master Tom chuses to wash in dirty water, ergo, this puppy, this ass, this driveller, and the rest of the herd forsooth, must wash in dirty water to—yes, by the Lord! and with the very puddle water which he has made more dirty! Ha, ha, ha, ha.’ Adding with amazing volubility, ‘Dietreci begot Cassanova, Cassanova begot de Loutherbourg, Loutherbourg begat Sir Frankey Bourgeois, and he the dirty-dog, quarrelled with nature and bedaubed her works!’

There can be no doubt, but that Girtin in his finest works, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, made such atonement for the absence of studied drawing, that those who could feel the united charms of colour and effect, were content to compromise the want of that quality. This kind allowance must be made no less for the incomparable works of Rembrandt. But the indulgence is ill spared by good taste, to those who, being able to draw, are nevertheless too idle, or too vain to exhibit their skill, in what we think indispensable to the perfecting of pictures of every class: upon which premises, we think nothing short of the grossest prejudice can set up the works of any painter, who, neglecting to draw with correctness and character, does not exert his talent to the utmost, to the rendering the light, shadow and colour, with all possible harmony of effect. With this measure of appreciation in our mind’s eye, we cannot tolerate the blue drawings of Girtin, nor the incoherent scratching and scrawlings of too many of the works of Gainsborough; although we may say of all those afore-named geniuses individually, as Ben Jonson said of Shakspeare, with reference to the faults in his works, and particularly of the designs of Thomas Girtin, ‘but he redeemed his vices with his virtues: there was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.’

Girtin is supposed to have been tempted to work with less regard to correctness of form, in proportion to the ease with which he produced richness of colour, on the cartridge paper, compared with the labour of executing on white paper, and to have become at length so enamoured with colouring and effect, as to consider drawing of little consequence to the general character of a picture. This error, with many of our best artists, had nearly been fatal to English art; for connoisseurs, at least patrons so miscalled, in their enthusiastic admiration of these slovenly aberrations of genius, made no ceremony of declaring, that those who were emulous of representing nature, with becoming regard to truth of form, were men of mean capacity, men without souls for art! The absurdity of which doctrine, if not originating with, was loudly echoed by dilletanti painters, who having influence in their sphere, promulgated the error, to cover their own conceit and incapacity, in their daubings, and moppings, and splashings, so much the rage for several seasons, among the fashionable circles at Bath, and even in London, the usual seat of less foppery, and better.taste.

The harmony and pictorial excellence which prevails in the works of Girtin’s best day, however, is a more pleasing theme to dwell upon, than his errors, either professional or moral, and we shall therefore offer few remarks on his style of painting.

Of the subjects which he chose for imitation, his wild mountain scenery, and topographical views of old towns, were the best adapted for his mode of execution, which was not sufficiently light and elegant for that beautiful style of pastoral and classic landscapes, which are so congenial to the feeling and taste of Turner. His masses were bold, broad and abrupt, his touch large, and uncontrouled, and not unfrequently too specious to admit of severe criticism. His knowledge of effect, however, was at times exhibited in so captivating a degree, that nature and not art seemed to prevail throughout the scene which he represented.

The variety of light and shadow which he spread over his picturesque buildings, the manner in which he separated the masses, and the brilliancy of certain parts, which received a partial burst of sun-shine, diffused a splendour of effect to these scenes, which no artist before had conceived. His fine taste for colour, was most evidently conspicuous in these topographical scenes. Every tint of brick, stone, plaster, timber and tile, was combined, both in broad light, medium tint, and shadow, with such admirable feeling towards general harmony, that no one of the least taste could behold his best productions in this style, without admiration and delight.

His skies were generally composed either of large masses of clouds, with partial rays of the sun, which gave variety of light and shadow, or else of a serene character, where the whole piece had a general simplicity of effect. His skies were rarely composed of many parts. The azure spaces were washed with a mixture of indigo and lake, and the shadows of the clouds with light red and indigo, Indian red and indigo, and an occasional addition of lake. The warm tone of the cartridge paper, frequently served for the lights, without tinting, acquiring additional warmth by being opposed to the cool colour of the azure, and shadow of the clouds. His skies in general were extremely luminous.

It was a great treat to see this artist at his studies, he was always accessible. When he had accomplished the laying in of his sky, he would proceed with great facility in the general arrangement of his tints, on the buildings, trees, water, and other objects. Every colour appeared to be placed with a most judicious perception to effecting a general union, or harmony.

His light stone tints, were put in with thin washes of Roman ochre, the same mixed with light red, and certain spaces, free from the warm tints, were touched with grey, composed of light red and indigo,—or brighter still, with ultramarine and light red. The brick buildings with Roman ochre, light red, and lake, and a mixture of Roman ochre, lake and indigo, or Roman ochre, madder brown and indigo; also with burnt sienna and Roman ochre, madder brown and Roman ochre, and these colours in all their combinations. For finishing the buildings which came the nearest to the foreground, where the local colour and form were intended to be represented with particular force and effect, Vandyck brown, and Cologn-earth were combined with these tints, which gave depth and richness of tones, that raised the scale of effect without the least diminution of harmony,—on the contrary, the richness of effect was increased from their glowing warmth, by neutralizing the previous tones, and by throwing them into their respective distances, or into proper keeping.

The trees, which he frequently introduced in his views, exhibiting all the varieties of autumnal hues, he coloured with corresponding harmony to the scale of richness exhibited on his buildings. The greens for these operations were composed of gambouge, indigo, and burnt sienna, occasionally heightened with yellow lake, brown pink, and gambouge, these mixed too sometimes with Prussian blue. The shadows for the trees, with indigo and burnt sienna, and with a most beautiful and harmonious shadow tint, composed of grey and madder brown; which, perhaps, is nearer to the general tone of the shadow of trees than any other combinations that can be formed with water-colours. Girtin made his greys sometimes with Venetian red and indigo, Indian red and indigo, and a useful and most harmonious series of warm and cool greys, of Roman ochre, indigo, and lake, which, used judiciously, will serve to represent the basis for every species of subject and effect, as viewed in the middle grounds, under the influence of that painter’s atmosphere, so prevalent in the autumnal season in our humid climate: which constantly exhibits to the picturesque eye, the charms of rich effects, in a greater variety than any country in Europe.

22 November 1823

Anonymous [William Henry Pyne], ‘The Rise and Progress of Water-Colour Painting in England: No. III’, Somerset House Gazette, and Literary Museum, vol.1, 22 November 1823, p.98 (Pyne, 1823c)


Hitherto, the topographical style of painting had been chiefly addressed to the antiquary, rather as a matter of curiosity than art. In this country, at least, architectural representations were viewed as subjects which did not afford sufficient scope for the display of much talent. Turner and Girtin, however, discovered in this pursuit, capacities which had escaped the most ingenious of their predecessors, and so nearly at the same period, that it would be difficult to determine which of the two were endowed with the highest gifts. But the period arrived, when the superiority was manifest in Turner, who superadded to as great a knowledge of effect as that possessed by his ingenious compeer, greater accuracy of drawing, and more elegant execution, which enabled him to accomplish all that could be desired, and laid a solid foundation whereon to build his future fame.


Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)


1797 - 1798

Dunstanburgh Castle


1797 - 1798

Bamburgh Castle



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)


1797 - 1798

Bamburgh Castle



A Rainbow over the River Exe


1796 - 1797

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear


(?) 1802

Morpeth Bridge


(?) 1796

The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral


(?) 1798

Rievaulx Abbey


(?) 1796

The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral






Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)


1800 - 1801

Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning


1800 - 1801

Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning