It rarely happens that the talents of men, however great they may be, are duly appreciated by their contemporaries. Some few indeed have had the felicity to be the exception to the rule. Girtin, one of the greatest geniuses that ever practised water-colour painting, made but little of his art; the dealers, however, who happened to possess his works, benefited by his death; they suddenly rose in estimation, and, continuing to be sought with avidity, they were purchased at almost any premium that was demanded. Not more than a quarter of a century has elapsed since his decease, and his fame still increasing, every scrap from his intelligent pencil contended for as a treasure, and his best works are not to be obtained at any price. …
In recurring to the two artists, who may be said to be the great luminaries of this modern art, we will here take the opportunity of inserting a short estimate of their respective talents.
Turner was well grounded in perspective under Malton. Girtin became an adept in the same science under the tuition of Dayes. Malton and Dayes were topographical draughtsmen. Their pupils soon left their preceptors in art an immeasurable distance behind.
Dr. Munro, – now the venerable, being almost of patriarchal age, heretofore the contemporary of Reynolds, Wilson, Gainsborough, and all the founders of the Royal Academy, and long reputed as an amateur artist and great collector of drawings, – was, in no small degree, instrumental to these youths, particularly to Turner. The Doctor’s collection, which contained some of the choicest works of Gainsborough, 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 this gentleman, whilst they were yet considerably short of the age of manhood, were so admirable for freedom and correctness, that they were not unfrequently preferred to the originals from which they had been taken. …
Turner’s commencement from Nature was the depicting scenes whose principal features were remains 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 future superior feeling; for every stone, and brick, and tile on his buildings were varied in their respective tints. ‘He had,’ to use the observation of a departed connoisseur, ‘already 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 in which they wrought their elegant imitations of what they selected, and raising the practice of water-colours, which had hitherto procured no higher title for the best works of the professors thereof than that of tinted drawings, to the rank and character of paintings in water-colours. Thus improving rapidly, as by inspiration, these two distinguished artists, whilst yet young men, achieved the honour of founding that English school, as it now stands recorded, the admiration of all enlightened 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 practise in a similar style. On the contrary, nothing can be less like than the drawings of Turner and Girtin. We do not force comparisons, but their works are frequently as remote in general character, as those of Salvator Rosa and Claude de Lorraine.
Girtin made his drawings, with but few exceptions, on cartridge paper. He chose this material, as his object was to procure a bold and imposing chiar’ oscuro with splendour of colour, and without attention to detail. Some of his happiest productions display these qualities united with magnificent effect, and 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 which requires somewhat of prejudice in favour of originality to tolerate, or sometimes even endure. It may, indeed, be said of his works, as of those by the renowned Wilson, that they were not generally admired, because their merits were only felt by those who were competent to judge of the abstract perceptions of a great and original artist.
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 into a pictorial composition. The flatness and freshness of verdure with which he described the valleys 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 like what we have seen in nature, when a gleam of light penetrating a parting cloud has displayed them as so many gems glittering on a velvet mantle of vivid green.
Girtin’s admirers tolerated a defect in certain of his drawings, which proves how much allowance the enthusiastic amateur will make for the sake of genius. The paper which he most admired was to be had only of a stationer at Charing-cross; this was Dutch cartridge, with slight wire-marks, and folded like foolscap. It commonly happened that the part which had been folded when put on the stretching-frame, would sink into spots or expose the transverse line across the picture; so that where the crease appeared, the colour was some degrees of darker blue than the general tone of the sky. This unsightly accident was not only overlooked, but, in some instances, relished in the true spirit of dilettantiship, inasmuch as it was taken for a sign of originality, and in the transfer of these drawings from one collector to another, bore a premium according to that indubitable mark.
Anonymous [John Hornby Maw], A Concise Summary of a Series of Notes and Observations, Practical and Theoretical, on the Art of Landscape Painting, in Water Colours, Adapted to the Practice of Young Amateurs (Maw, 1831, pp.18–19)
The collector and amateur artist John Hornby Maw (1800–85), writing anonymously, describes the role of ‘that highly-talented and original Artist, Thomas Girtin’ in rivalling ‘the richness, depth, and transparency of the finest Oil Paintings’. He praises the ‘simple grandeur’ and ‘manly and unaffected vigour of his execution’, saying that ‘His feeling for Colour was of an elevated character’. According to Maw, those who saw him work ‘say that his colour almost streamed on the paper, and that the tints in drying seemed to arrange themselves, as by magic, from the apparent chaos of liquid colour with which he would, in a few minutes, cover the entire surface of a sheet of cartridge paper’. Maw lists his ‘very simple’ palette, presumably taken from William Henry Pyne’s (1770–1843) eye-witness account of Girtin at work (Pyne, 1823b). ‘The author possesses a very fine drawing of an architectural subject, by Girtin, which, although anything but monotonous in colour, is painted throughout merely with Raw Sienna, Lake, and Indigo.’ However, he ‘undervalued the amenities of … detail and individuality of character’.
It has not been possible to identify the 'architectural subject' owned by Maw. He may well have had quite a substantial collection of works by Girtin, including the prime version of A Rainbow over the River Exe (TG1730) and two works consigned to auction in 1831 (Exhibitions: Christie's, 25 February 1831).
A Rainbow over the River Exe