'Thomas Girtin', The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the Most Eminent Persons, Who have Flourished in Great Britain, From the Accession of George the First to the Demise of George the Fourth, vol.4, London, 1834, pp.132–33


THIS eminent artist, who has been termed the Canaletti and Wilson of water-colours, and was only prevented, by premature death, from attaining the highest rank in his profession, was born on the 18th of February, 1775. He drew at an early age; but, to quote his own words, ‘other boys, at ten or twelve, who amused themselves, or idled in the same way, drew quite as well as himself.’ Girtin was, for some time, a pupil of Dayes, and, together with Turner, and other young artists, formed one of the coterie that met, on certain evenings, at the house of Dr. Munro, to study from his celebrated collection of drawings. In this manner he obtained an accuracy of eye and mastery of hand which soon fitted him to try his powers in drawing from nature. He did not go far for his subjects; the ruins of the Savoy Palace, near Somerset House, and the shores of Lambeth and Chelsea, were the spots in which he first made himself a topographical draughtsman and a colourist. He afterwards visited the lakes of Cumberland, and some parts of Scotland and North Wales; and, during this tour, painted the only two landscapes in oil, which he ever executed. On his return to London, the breadth and grand simplicity of his style, led many amateurs to take lessons of him; thinking they could easily acquire what appeared to have been easily achieved.

In his twenty-third year, Girtin exhibited, in Castle Street, Leicester Square, A Panoramic Picture of St. Paul’s, and the buildings east and west, as seen from the lofty roof of the Albion Mills, then situated at the entrance of Blackfriars Bridge, on the south side of the Thames. This was universally admired by all judges of art, and may be considered the original of that species of scenic representation, which Mr. Barker and others have since brought to such perfection. In 1802, he visited the continent, in hopes of checking the progress of a pulmonary complaint, brought on by an irregular course of living. He was married at this time; and, according to the testimony of his surviving relations, had contracted more regular habits, at the period of his departure from England. His constitution was, however, too far impaired, to be much benefited by change of climate; and he died, shortly after his return, on the 9th of November, in the year above-mentioned.

As a painter, he appears to have been considered one of the greatest geniuses of the age; but his habits and manners, though he used to be called ‘Honest Tom Girtin,’ were not the most moral or respectable. A natural shyness induced him to shun the company of the well-bred, and he thus formed many unworthy companionships. He preferred taking his passage in a collier, when he was on his way to the north; and delighted in drinking, smoking, and jesting with the crew. When travelling by land, he always went into the kitchen of the inn for refreshment; and, like Morland, he generally took sketches of the scenes he visited in the course of his peregrinations.

As an artist, Girtin has the merit, in conjunction with Sandby and Turner, of having given much of that importance to the art of water-colour painting, which it has lately obtained in this country. Turner and himself were the first who used the three primitive colours in laying in the chiaro-scuro of their subjects; a plan, which they subsequently improved, by laying the local colour of each object at once, and thus produced those rich and splendid compositions that almost vied, in general effect, with oil-colour paintings. But of the merits of this artist we cannot, perhaps, give a better idea than by quoting the remarks of a writer in The Library of the Fine Arts, relative to the rise and progress of water-colour art. He observes: ‘Before that new epoch in water-colour art, which originated with Girtin and Turner, the utmost that had been attempted with transparent colour, just prepared, in subjects of romantic scenery, was the representation of distant mountains in a thin vapour, and all the other large features, advancing towards the foreground, in timid, undefined washes, of semi-aerial tint. Indeed, the most admired works of Cozens affected nothing more than a grayish sort of chiaro-scuro, wrought into harmony by washes, merely intimating the hues of nature. Girtin, restrained by none of the fancied incapabilities of watercolours, at once struck out a daring style, determined to imitate what he saw; and thus, by the energies of his original genius, perceiving that certain operations of the sun upon the clouds threw the vastness of a whole mountain, that occupied the entire distance, under a deep and solemn mass of gloom, he gave it in his picture accordingly; and thereby clothed his composition with that awful sublimity of effect which stamped the scene with the majesty of nature.’ To this we may add, that, notwithstanding the boldness and breadth of execution, which characterize the works of Girtin, he devoted much care and labour to his finely coloured compositions, which were by no means the off-hand productions some have imagined them to be.