Thomas Miller, ed., Turner and Girtin’s Picturesque Views, Sixty Years Since (Miller, 1854, pp.iii–v, xiii–xxxvii, xliii–l) (1854 – Item 1)


Here he made a beautiful series of drawings, which were purchased by the Earl of Essex, but are now in the collection of the Duke of Bedford, which he etched and published in a style of engraving, then recently introduced but now almost obsolete, called aquatinta.[fn]The first of these etchings he has dated June 16th, 1802, and the last October 4th, of the same year; or but little more than a month before he died. We may almost trace the decline of the master-hand in the appended dates, and by the longer intervals that intervened between the production of each plate they also prove that he ‘died in harness,’ working to the last. The dates are as follow:

June July August Sept Oct. 

 16     6       4       2     4 ! ! ! 

 18    12      9       29 

 25    16      17     the last. 

 28    19 

They were published by his brother, John Girtin, a writing engraver, who lived in Castle Street, Leicester Square, until his house and stock were destroyed by fire a few years after his brother’s death: his wife, who was ill at the time, died in his arms as he was carrying her out through the surrounding flames. This fire destroyed many of Girtin’s best works; and so scarce must we suppose these engravings of the views of Paris to have become, that the British Museum does not possess a copy.[/fn] Not content with these drawings, he executed a great many more – all copied from Nature, in outline – of the principal buildings in Paris, and of one or two of the towns he passed through, which, for boldness, betokened no decay of power. Yet at this very time he was obliged to leave France from the feeling of ‘solitariness,’ occasioned by his weak state of health. His return was no way beneficial, for on the 9th of November following he expired at his brother’s house in Castle Street, Leicester Square, leaving a widow and an infant son to bemoan a husband and a parent, and his country to deplore the loss of one of the greatest geniuses of the age. He had not even reached the prime of life; but, with all his blushing honours thick upon him, died in the twenty-seventh, as some have asserted, but, as we believe, in the twenty-ninth year of his age. He was, perhaps, the only one who had a place in Turner’s memory in after years – one of the few he ever seemed to speak of with regret, and his ‘Poor Tom!’ Would sometimes be uttered in such tones as recalled Sterne’s ‘Alas! Poor Yorick!’ …

The remains of Girtin are laid on that side of the burial-ground of the parish of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, which leads from Bedford Street to the church on the right.

Just beyond the second tree, a flat stone, which bears neither name nor date, marks his grave. It was not, however, always so, as the portion of the stone here engraved will show, and which once covered the spot that is still sacred to the memory of ‘Honest Tom Girtin.’ These three words ought to have formed the greats artist’s epitaph, and have been handed down through all time, along with his who won an undying name by his genius in a sister-art, and over whose monument thousands have breathed the words, ‘O rare Ben Jonson!’

The gravestone was broken by accident some years ago, laid aside, and would, no doubt, have been for ever forgotten, but for the present work. It was originally six feet six inches long, and three feet three inches wide, and was laid flat upon his grave. In the appended note[fn]SAINT PAUL, COVENT GARDEN.

Whereas [names not known to the parish authorities] hath requested us, the present Churchwardens of the said parish of saint Paul, Covent Garden, whose names are hereunto subscribed, to permit to have a stone six feet six inches long, by three feet three inches in breadth, laid FLATT upon the grave of Mr. Girtin deceased, in that part of the churchyard commonly known or distinguished by the name of Henrietta Street Platt, where he now lies interred, in like manner we such grave stones are usually laid there: desiring that the sum of twelve guineas may be accepted as a consideration for the same, to be disposed of as shall seem most for the benefit of the said parish.

Dated 1st day Dec. 1803.             £   s. d.

For the flatt stone over Mr Girtin 12  12 0[/fn] we give the warrant from the ‘account book’ of the parish; but by whom it was procured we have not ascertained. Sir William Beechey, Edridge, Hearne, and Turner, followed his remains to the grave. The monument was no doubt erected by his brother-artists, and, perhaps, amongst them the amateurs and members of the Sketching Society which he founded, and a counter-part of which still continues to exist.

After the stone had got broken, it was taken up and reared by chance against the edge of some neighbouring monument, where it remained a considerable time, – so long, indeed, as, nearly a quarter of a century ago, to induce the author of a little sketch, entitled, ‘Recollections of the late Thomas Girtin’ (and who was ignorant of the accident, and knew nothing about the stone having been originally laid flat upon the grave, instead of – as was the custom – placed upright), gravely to state what follows: – ‘It is a curious circumstance, that the custom of placing the grave stone with its front due east and west was departed from in the instance of this artist. His remains were interred in the burial-ground of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, on the south side, to the left of the paved path (near the west gate of the church) to [towards?] Bedford Street. At the head of this grave, lying east and west, the monumental stone, or pillar, is made to front the north; and from this singular arrangement the passenger who wishes to pay respect to genius may know the site of the grave of Thomas Girtin.’ Such an error, committed by one who knew Girtin well, would not be credited, but for the fact of the warrant here produced for placing the stone flat upon his grave; yet many living witnesses, no doubt, might be found who have seen the monument standing as here described, and their testimony would outweigh our assertion, were it not backed by the warrant.

Girtin lived beloved by all who knew him, and died lamented by his friends and admirers. Turner was beloved by no one; and, excepting for his genius, he died unlamented, and without a friend: for his surly habits and suspicious nature were inimical to friendship. Girtin’s house, like his heart, was open to all. Turner seldom allowed a human footstep to cross his threshold, nor cared to open his door to a visitor, unless to enjoy the triumph of refusing the object of his mission. Girtin was warm-hearted, liberal, and generous as the sun, that scatters its gold on the good and on the evil. Turner was cold and selfish, and would not have given a brother-artist a shilling to have saved him from starvation while living, he never gave cause for a human heart, from its full utterance, to exclaim ‘God bless him!’ He had not a loveable atom in his nature – not a redeeming point in him worthy to be placed beside even the faults of Honest Tom Girtin, whose very failings ‘leaned to virtue’s side.’ But for his genius, Turner would have lived in the world unnoticed, unvisited, and died unpitied. The very men who were instrumental in spreading his fame a million-fold, by whom he made his wealth – the engravers he mentions not in his will. They, like the water-colour painters, came not under the head of the ‘Decayed Artists,’ whom, while living, he neither mingled with, noticed, nor assisted. Peace to his manes! There might be hidden within, his heart of hearts, kinder, purer, and better motives, than we blinded mortals are permitted to discover. In Christian charity we trust there were, and that for these he has received his reward; and that a measure of happiness is meted out to him a thousand times more bountiful than that which, while living, he meted out to his fellow-men.

In conclusion, and as a testimony of the high estimation in which these great founders of the Water-Colour School of Painting were held, we append the following remarks on their genius. The first, on Thomas Girtin, was written a few years after his death.

An unknown writer says that Girtin closely studied Wilson and Canaletti; and that ‘much of the knowledge he obtained in the display of contrast of colour in open landscape was derived from the study of Wilson, whose bold and effective pictures in oil Girtin might be said to have translated into water-colour. The vigour and richness of his architectural subjects, which were no less striking, was alike ascribable to his contemplation of the pictures of Canaletti, – indeed, he was alternately designated by his admirers, when he first evinced that power in his works which had never before been seen in drawings, the Wilson and the Canaletti of water-colours, until improving by practice, and increasing in power and judgment, he achieved works that could be likened to nothing in art that had preceded his style.’ Paul Sandby was the first who produced ‘pleasing, cheerful, daylight effects on his topographical subjects, slightly coloured: and late in life (he lived to a great age) he improved his style of colouring; and on a few rural subjects – particularly two – representing ale-houses on the Bayswater road, with wagon-horses at the water-trough, he introduced a very pleasing harmony of tints; but these were executed after Girtin and Turner had displayed, in some of their finest landscape compositions, the superior capabilities of water-colour painting.’ This is great praise, and a fine compliment paid to genius. For an artist of Paul Sandby’s reputation to lay aside a system which he had practised for nearly half a century, and in his old age to become a disciple in the new school of colouring founded by Girtin and Turner, is the greatest honour that could be paid to them.

‘Of the subjects which Girtin chose for imitation,’ says a critic, writing in 1823, ‘his wild mountain scenery, and topographical views of old towns, were the best adapted for his mode of execution. * * * His masses were bold, broad, and abrupt his touch large * * * his knowledge of effect exhibited in so captivating a degree, that Nature, and not Art, seemed to prevail throughout the scenes 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 sunshine, diffused a splendour of effect to these scenes which no artist before had conceived.

‘His fine taste for colour was most evidently conspicuous in his 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 productions 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. They were rarely composed of many parts. His skies, in general, were extremely luminous.’

‘It might be supposed,’ says another writer, ‘by the bold and broad execution which characterises the works of Girtin, that they were mostly off-hand productions. The contrary, however, is the fact. It is true that he could sketch, and did occasionally dash in his effects with rapidity; but his finely-coloured compositions, though apparently like the pictures by Wilson, the result of little labour, were wrought with much careful study and proportionate manual exertion: in certain of his productions I have frequently watched his progress, which, like Wilson’s, was careful, notwithstanding his bold execution, even to fastidiousness. It is true he did not hesitate, nor undo what he once laid down, for he worked upon principle; but he reiterated his tints to produce splendour and richness, and repeated his depths to secure transparency of tone, with a perseverance that would surprise those who were not intimately acquainted with the difficult process of water-colour painting, to produce works that merit the designation of pictures. Indeed it may be truly said, in honour to his memory, that he was, as a painter, unquestionably one of the greatest geniuses of the age.’

An eminent critic, who wrote an article on Girtin and his contemporaries about a quarter of a century ago, after enumerating many eminent names, says, ‘Greater still, the lamented and ill-fated Girtin, whom his contemporaries placed above Turner, and in whom posterity has seen an anticipator of Bonington, but recognised a higher genius even than Bonington; inasmuch as he was the founder of that school of painting, of which Bonington was only one of the most illustrious disciples.’

No sooner had the sun of Girtin set, ‘darkened at its noon,’ than Turner began to climb above the horizon, and ‘flame upon the forehead of the sky.’