Documents, Dated Watercolours and Early Accounts of the Artist
Thomas Miller, ed., Turner and Girtin’s Picturesque Views, Sixty Years Since (Miller, 1854, pp.iii–v, xiii–xxxvii, xliii–l) (1854 – Item 1)
A SHORT time since, a worthy gentleman rescued the following Plates, engraved with the labours of Turner and his early associate ‘Poor Tom’1 (Girtin), from a cellar, or some equally obscure place, where probably they had been hidden for half a century, forgotten, excepting by the few painstaking collectors, who, at the price of the present volume, had been enabled, on rare occasions, to enrich their stores now and then with solitary soiled and badly-worked specimens. The said worthy gentleman, seeing them beautifully incrusted – to use a collector’s phrase – with patna, verdigris, and all kinds of filth (classically called the accumulation of ages), and possessed with the utilitarian spirit of the times, he destined them at once to the refiner’s pot, that he might thereby obtain a purer, and to him a more useful metal.
Being myself somewhat of a Fine Art dealer in Marine Stores, the old ‘Temeraire,’ to wit; the Plates in their ‘dark and mysterious’ state, were brought to me, and I saw, as the auctioneers phrase it, that it was a ‘speculative lot;’ and with a love of antiquarian relics – interest I put out of the question – for which the F. R. A. S. ought to create me a member of their learned body, I made an offer, and the plates became mine. Once in my possession, and not having the fear of Morris Moore or a Parliamentary Enquiry before my eyes, I went to work, and, by dint of rubbing and scrubbing with something more than ‘hot water’ and ‘a ragged towel’ – thanks to her Majesty’s ministers for the free use of soap-lees in its pure and unsophisticated state – I found, if I had not hit upon a mine of gold, I had upon a mine of Art, and this, combined with the novelty of the plates exhibiting the works of TURNER and GIRTIN, sixty years since, a generous public would soon convert into a mine of wealth.
The first reward I had for my labours, however, was the intelligence found upon one of the plates, that on ‘Saturday, October 3, 1801, twenty- five impressions had been worked off, making a grand total of two hundred copies’!!!2 Two hundred copies, fifty years since, of a popular work, illustrated by the first artists of the day – and one of whom Fame has now placed amongst the first artists of the world – being the entire sale for the United Kingdom! Hear this, ye Longmans and ye Murrays; ye gentlemen that make your fathers’ figures to a new book look like the logarithmic numbers in a Hamilton Moore or a John Norie. Only think, if your worthy forbears could see and hear your lucubrations over an estimate for an edition of 20,000 copies. What would be their notion of your mental state? Shade of Caxton! Oh, Lackington! and, oh, John Miller, Time works wonders! But, to go on with my ‘unvarnished tale,’ I found, when the plates were cleaned and proved, they were in as good condition as they ever had been; and that, as a caterer for public taste, I could present my patrons with the astounding novelty of looking upon their native land, through the medium of a Turner and a Girtin, as their grandfathers saw it.
Here, gentle reader, ends my story; and if the following Engravings afford the same pleasure to the many that they have already done to the few, I shall not regret my dealing in Marine Fine Art stores; and if, by any chance, I am taken, as Turner once was, for ‘one of our people,’ I can only hope the mistake may be discovered before it is too late, as was the case with him.
TURNER AND GIRTIN …
THOMAS GIRTIN, whose early history is so closely interwoven with that of Turner, in the commencement of their artistical career, as to render their names inseparable, was born in Southwark, 18th February, 1773. The gravestone erected to his memory states his age to be twenty-seven; but George Dance, R. A., who drew his portrait, has in the most circumstantial manner described the date and place of his birth, Feb. 18, 1773. Chambers, in his ‘Biographical Dictionary,’ gives the same date; Edwards, in his ‘Anecdotes of Painters,’ states him to be twenty-seven, and Lempriere makes him to have been thirty years old, when he died; in the ‘Library of the Fine Arts,’ in the Memoir of Henry Liverseege, it is stated that ‘Girtin and Liverseege both died at the age of twenty-nine.’ Of his father nothing is known beyond his being a rope-maker, or roper, as those following that trade are commonly called, and that he died when Girtin was a lad about eight years old. His mother was married again to a Mr. Vaughan, a pattern-draughtsman. Very little, however, is recorded of her; but it appears she carried on business at No. 2 St. Martin’s-le-Grand, where Girtin continued to reside up to the year 1796. Girtin had a brother, apprenticed to a writing engraver; and we may suppose it was to the step-father these youths owed their first introduction to the Arts. Still, when a child he is known to have evinced a predilection for drawing, and was seldom without pencil and paper when they could be obtained. In what way Turner and Girtin first became acquainted we have no means of knowing; the chances are, that while Turner was under the tuition of Malton, and Girtin with Dayes (the latter by far the most talented preceptor), they were brought together by Dr. Monro, who was intimate with both Malton and Dayes: or it might be, that they became acquainted while following the occupation of print-colourers to Mr. John Raphael Smith,3 by whom one, if not both, appear to have been employed.
Excepting the boyish sketches he made at home, there is but little doubt that Turner’s first essay in the arts commenced in this way, and that for two or three years he was a print-colourer under Smith. Nor was this a bad school in which to commence his career, as it required a great command over the materials to obtain the dexterity necessary to become a print-colourer; for the effect to be got at had to be produced at once, or the print was spoiled. To acquire this facility was, therefore, a work of time, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that Turner was altogether employed in this profession for two or three years, as boys in those days were only promoted step by step; and it may be, that his father’s penurious habits preferred the little money he was then earning under Smith to the prospective advantage of a day-school education. It was only when the father came unexpectedly into a legacy, and he was asked by Mr. Tomkinson what he was going to make of William, that he seems to have considered some elementary knowledge necessary, and that he then placed his son under Thomas Malton, the author of the ‘Treatise on Perspective.’ What by print-colouring, occasionally selling a drawing,4 and putting in skies for one and effects for another, we have pretty clear proof how his time was employed until both he and Girtin, by their talents, obtained invitations to the houses of Dr. Monro and Mr. Henderson, and mingled among brother-artists by several years their seniors, when their artistical career began in earnest.
Good Dr. Monro, as he was called by Turner, was an eminent collector, residing in the Adelphi,5 where he occasionally opened his house for a converzatione; and as old Pine, of ‘Wine and Walnuts’ celebrity, used to say, ‘what a glorious coterie there was, when Wilson, Marlow, Gainsborough, Paul and Tom Sandby, Rooker, Hearne, and Cozins used to meet; and you, old Jack,’ turning to Varley, ‘were a boy in a pinafore, with Turner, Girtin, and Edridge, as big-wigs on whom you used to look as something beyond the usual amount of clay.’ It was a glorious time, for this truly benevolent patron not only threw his collection open to the young artists, but employed them to make drawings for him, that they might, while having the advantage of study, not lose their moral independence by supposing the benefit was an obligation. Such delicate encouragement has been but seldom given.
The history of artists, in our plain matter-of-fact England, has but little in it that seems to interest the general public. They leave their works behind them, and these seem to be all that the world shows any concern about. They lived and died; but the struggles they encountered, the poverty they endured, and the cold reception they too often met with, are matters about which no record is kept, and for which, until it is often too late, the world shows no sympathy. The vicissitudes that one has battled with and overcome, and which another has combated and perished in encountering, are the history of all; – some have risen to wealth, who are now forgotten; and some have perished in poverty, whose works have realised an hundred times the amount which the artists received while living: and this is almost the whole of their sad, eventful history.
Although Turner’s father was stingy to meanness, – so much so, indeed, that when we read the entry of the Turner who was married to Mary Marshall with a special license, we are convinced, knowing his penurious habits, that he would have remained single until ‘the crack of doom,’ rather than have parted with the necessary sum for such a purpose; still, the son, probably, never had to battle with those severe hardships which so many young artists sink under, – he had always a meal provided, and never wanted bread. But if, like too many, he did not wander homeless ‘mid a thousand homes,’ and was a stranger to the gnawing pangs of hunger, he had for a long period, during the best portion of his career, to endure the chilling neglect, the haughty scorn, the niggard praise, and the averted glances, of those who only measured merit by the notice it attained, and who, from position or connoisseurship – the latter in the hands of the few – either ‘damned with faint praise,’ or stood up dreaded Sir Oracles; who, when they spake, bid ‘no dog bark.’ What one said, another echoed; they dug a grave for genius with a nod, and buried it with a turn of the heel. The public was a slave to the judgment of the few, and durst not express an opinion of its own.
It is true, excepting at the commencement of his career, Turner always received comparatively high prices for his pictures. Admitting he did, who were his purchasers, and how many did he sell? The large collection he has left to the nation is an answer to that question.
Taste and judgment, with a few honoured exceptions, were at a very low ebb in those days; and although there had been numbers of favourable criticisms on Turner’s works, it was not until the eloquent pen of the Oxford Graduate wrote him into fame, and taught Turner to be cared for, if not understood, that his pictures were eagerly sought after.6 To this neglect is probably owing his morose manner in after-life; for had he been as uncouth, surly, and churlish, in his early career, as he was in the middle and latter part of it, no one would have tolerated him. By parsimonious habits he grew into independence, and when the time came for his pictures to be sought for, too often as investments, he laughed at the buyers and refused to sell.
They offered him help when he did not need it, paid him homage when he was powerful enough to spurn it, and gave him praise when he turned to it a deaf ear. The gentle blood that flowed through his veins in the days of his youth was turned to gall, and his words were bitter as wormwood. He was no longer the Turner that wandered with ‘Honest Tom Girtin,’ as the latter was called by his contemporaries, making sketches in the early morning, and watching the shadows settle down in the grey twilight of evening; but ‘an adder in the path’ of his would-be patrons. And he might exclaim with Jacob of old, ‘A troop overcame him, but he overcame at the last.’ Little as there is loveable about the man, he met with rebuffs enough to make him what he was, and when the time came he paid them back with savage interest. His ‘milk of human kindness’ dried up when he lost poor Tom Girtin: he never took another friend to his rough and bear-like bosom. ‘You must pay me so much,’ or ‘I shan’t,’ became ever after his watchword; in this alone did the giant dwarf his mighty proportions: when he knelt, it was on a cushion of gold.
These young artists, whose names will never die while a taste for works of art exist, thus commenced their career; Turner (three or four years the elder) under Malton, and Girtin under Dayes: the world little dreaming that they were destined to shake down an old system, and build up a new,
‘Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.’
We have shown, that after acquiring the first rudiments of art they were fortunate in their Adelphi patrons, where they were well schooled by copying the drawings in Dr. Monro’s and Mr. Henderson’s collections, which consisted of the choicest works of the period, and many rare prints of an early date.
Turner, from his patient, imitative powers, copied the works of Dayes, Girtin’s preceptor, so closely, that it requires careful attention to discover the difference. A close inspection, however, shows the distinction: for Dayes, who had been a miniature-painter, always drew his figures very accurately; while in Turner they are meagre and ill-drawn: the latter, however, even at this early period, exhibit traces of that power in aerial effect that was to raise him hereafter to such high eminence. It must be borne in mind, that the practice they had already acquired as print-colourers gave them great facility. It was then a common custom to colour prints upon an etching, which caused them when finished to have the appearance of drawings, – a task of more difficulty to accomplish than the same work in the present day. About this period, that is, from 1788 to 1790,[fn]The following quizzical note, which appeared about this period, conveys an idea of the process of washing in skies to water-colour drawings:-
‘What a fine, clear morning! I will do my sky. Betty! tell your mistress, if any one calls I can’t be seen – I’m skying. Betty! Betty! bring me up a pan of water, and wash that sponge: it really is so hot I cannot lay my colour smooth. Where’s the flat brush? Oh, dear! that Prussian-blue is all curdled.’ ‘Please, pa, ma says, will you take any refreshment?’ ‘Get away, get away! how ever can your ma think about refreshment, when she knows I am doing my sky? There, you’ve knocked down my swan’s quill, and how am I to soften this colour? it will all be dry before you wash out the dirt. Give me that brush. Oh, it is full of indigo! – there is the horizon spoilt! – Quick, quick! Some water! Oh, that’s gall! And the sky is flying away! Why did mother send you here? She might have known that I was skying.’[/fn] during which time Turner had been admitted a student at the Royal Academy, they were also employed by architects to wash in the skies, and, most probably, the flat tints to their drawings; and no doubt they acquired most useful experience from this occupation: for the architectural drawings Turner made some years after this of Cashiobury, for the Earl of Essex, are of the highest quality: one in particular, in the collection of Mr. Windus, where the light falls on the floor of a vaulted apartment through a stained-glass window, stands unequalled. He has introduced a rich Persian table-cover, which for careful finish is as elaborate as anything of the Dutch masters.
They were also employed by amateurs to put in effects to their sketches, some of which were engraved; the drawing of ‘Elgin Cathedral,’ in the present work, is one of these by Turner. In the original sketch, made by an amateur, the windows in the nave were closed or built up, but in the drawing Turner made he left them open. On being spoken to about this a few years since, he said, ‘They ought to have been open; how much better is it to see the light of day in God’s house than darkness!’7 The ‘View of Manchester,’ by Girtin, in this work, is from a sketch by Mr. Orme, and is curious as a joint-production, having received its finishing touches from such an eminent hand. The ardour with which the two friends pursued their studies was most exemplary, and in the next epoch of Turner we find he had taken Cozins for his model, of whom Edwards, speaking in his ‘Anecdotes of Painters,’ says, ‘He produced some drawings of great merit, executed by a process that may be considered tinted chiaroscuro, exhibiting very pleasing effects, and which has served as a foundation to the manner since adopted by Mr. Turner and the late Mr. Girtin, both of whom copied many of his drawings.’ And here, as we see Turner advance, we find him no longer copying the master’s handling, but culling, as it were, the sweets for which he was famed; and his productions now display those aerial effects, the promise of which had been seen in his Dayes’ manner, in which the spectator seems to breathe; and whatever his genius in after-life may have done to mature the judgment now forming, the merit must be given to the elegance and brilliancy of Cozins’ drawings.
Girtin never appears to have acquired any style but his own, although the drawings he and Turner made had great similarity; but then it was the similarity to the works of each other when they wrought from their own compositions, or from prints in chiaroscuro, and depended upon their mind’s eye for colour and finish.
At this time Girtin was beginning that daring mode of opposition in his drawing which finally overthrew the preconceived notion of the Sandby school, as to the incapability of water-colours to produce more than ‘tinted drawings.’ It is recorded that he sketched a picturesque part of Chelsea, drawing 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 then seeing the buildings under the influence which twilight had produced, with so unexpected a mass of shadow on the fading light, and that the reflexions in the water still increased the vastness of the mass – moreover, that the bridge opposed its distinct form, dark also, to a bright gleam on the horizon – he was so possessed with the solemn grandeur of the composition, which had thus 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. Turner, who was not slow to avail himself of every improvement, gradually began to imbibe Girtin’s manner. In a drawing exhibited at the Hampstead converzatione, a few months since, said to be by Cozins, but which was evidently Turner’s, is seen a most curious illustration of these two styles in one subject – Cozins’s on the trees and sky to the left (as the spectator views it), and Turner’s, at this period, on the other portion of the drawing; and it is the first known specimen in which his next, or Girtin manner, becomes visible.
Hitherto the scene of their labours must have been circumscribed – they had become draughtsmen by effective study, and they now sought to become painters by the study of Nature’s works. They threw aside the lessons of the school, and went forth into the out-of-door world to see how Nature herself worked, and to follow her example. Amid ruins, and in hidden nooks, they saw how the touches of Time made even decay look beautiful, by throwing the green moss here, and the yellow lichen there, like a spot of sunshine, and so covering the imperfections of age with loveliness; and into the picture-chambers of their minds they stored up what they saw, and when they again wrought upon their own resources, the inward eye of memory brought back the objects they had visited. And so they made themselves undying names.
By the study from Piranesi’s prints Girtin had acquired great vigour, and from Canaletti’s drawings and pictures that lineal precision so peculiar to him. If Turner had copied Dayes to advantage, so Girtin seems to have studied Malton; and the drawings Girtin made from the latter’s prints are, perhaps, the best examples of his own future originality, for to them, as we have said above, he could only be indebted for outline and chiaroscuro: but as he has coloured them in his own unmistakeable bold style, it shows that the observations on Nature he had stored in his mind were merely waiting opportunity to be developed. The best examples of these drawings are in the collection of Mr. Henderson. But he did not confine himself to landscape and architecture, for the same gentleman has a copy of Morland’s ‘Dogs hesitating about the Pluck’ (so called from a sheep’s heart, &c. being the object of their probable battle), which, while displaying Morland’s subject, has Girtin’s manner; so much so that it might pass for an original production.
Their wanderings at this time – probably owing to the limited state of their funds – appear to have been chiefly confined to within a mile or two of the Adelphi, among the picturesque shores of Westminster and Lambeth; for they were picturesque sixty years ago: amongst the old houses occupied by fishermen and their families, and other old buildings, tottering and grey with age, propped and supported by ill-cut posts, pillars, and wide abutments, where overhanging gables frowned defiance at the perpendicular, while here and there a patch of bright vegetation growing in the decaying timber, or some broken bit of wall, tiled roof, or brilliant bit of thatch, newly put up, added to the rich colouring of the picturesque objects, besides sheltering the inhabitants beneath, whose children, in mimicry of their parents’ occupation, were amphibiously sporting in all the enjoyment of unsophisticated nature on the muddy shores of the Thames. Or sometimes they were found among the ruins of the Savoy Palace, where the vast fragments of wall and yawning gaps gave to the beholder such glimpses of old London as will never be seen again. A study which Girtin made at this time of the Old Palace Watergate-steps, according to his own testimony, was a lesson of improvement from which he dated all the future knowledge he displayed in depicting monastic and other ruins. Here they studied as friends, each labouring for the other’s approbation, free from the slightest touch of jealous rivalry; and the success which attended their labours opened an entirely new field for water-colour painting.
It had always been considered as only capable of representing objects in a thin, washy manner, with a semi-aerial tint, gradually strengthening to the foreground, and then, by warm glazing, to give a little of the hue of Nature; and this was all water-colour was supposed to be capable of, until Turner and Girtin battled with this false theory, and brought such strong proof into the field as overthrew it for ever. Before this, when one of its professors was asked why the beautiful and interesting effects of Nature, as seen at day-break or sunset, were not depicted, the reply was, – ‘Water-colours have not power sufficient to represent such depth of tone; indeed, the attempt would be vain and fruitless: it is in oil-painting alone that such solemn effects can be obtained.’ Fortunate was it for the art that these young men were spirited enough to think for themselves, and had energy enough to carry their thoughts into execution.
At this period Girtin’s extraordinary talent manifested a decided superiority over Turner, although by careful and laborious study the latter had worked himself into reputation, in spite of the imitative powers, which led him to follow Girtin’s style so closely as to cause him to be held in lower estimation.8 Hence it is that, while collections exist of Girtin’s works of this period, we have none by Turner of the same date; individually, we have proofs of his industry, but none collectively. He, however, could appreciate the excellence he saw, and by diligent and laborious study followed closely in the wake of his volatile fellow-student, who from this period carried all before him.
The broad manner now introduced, led Girtin to seek for a medium to work upon capable of receiving and retaining his labours as rapidly as he could produce the new and startling effects which his genius had struck out. This he at last found in a semi-absorbent stout laid paper, about a royal size, that answered his purpose, which afterwards went by the name of ‘Girtin’s paper,’ and many a ream was manufactured to be blotted over by the followers of the Girtin manner.9 Girtin was not the plodding, painstaking student, that Turner was: by a sort of natural and ready genius he had arrived at a daring but brilliant mode of producing his pictures, and the charm of effect and colour made his productions universally admired. The principle of his mode of work was then novel for water-colour painters, and was the same as that adopted by those who painted in oil; viz. to paint in the local colours as near as possible at once, and shadow each with its own individual tint. By this process clearness and transparency were obtained, which added to the grand effects he produced, and fully justified all that his most ardent admirers could say in his praise, – proving him to have been a most attentive observer of Nature in her wildest and most beautiful forms and colours. At one time in the mountain, amidst a war of the elements; at another, when decked with the glorious orb of day, or obscured by mist and rain, one hill opposed to another, until subdued and almost lost in vapour; or standing out in bold relief against a brilliant bit of sky or sunny vale covered with grazing cattle. Moonlight, twilight, the drizzling rain, the pelting storm, the burning heat, or rainbowed skies, all found the pen of a ready writer; and no wonder that he stood alone, the admiration of his little world.
As evidence of the high estimation in which Girtin now stood, Mr. James Moore, an amateur artist, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, took him to Scotland to make drawings, and put in effects to his sketches: several of which, thus worked upon by Girtin, were afterwards published, bearing only Mr. Moore’s name. Mr. Moore’s widow lived some time at Croydon, and had in her possession many of these joint productions by her husband and Girtin, together with some of Girtin’s original drawings.
But Turner was not neglected: he had also his country commissions, and made for Mr. Henderson two drawings of Oxford and two of Lincoln, which display talent not inferior to Girtin’s.
The time, however, had arrived when the increasing spirit of trade was to place the young aspirants in a new field, and to develop those talents that were to give an impetus to water-colour painting, and enable it to rival its sister art in the pencils of Varley, Havel, Hills, Cotman, Prout, Harding, and others, which, a few short months before, it ‘was fruitless to attempt.’ In 1779, Harrison had commenced publishing the ‘Novelist’s Magazine,’ to which no name added so much lustre as that of Thomas Stothard.10 He had been preceded in his publication by several landscape works, such as Hearne and Byrne’s ‘Antiquities,’ commenced in 1778; Paul Sandby’s ‘Views;’ ‘Virtuosi’s Museum;’ Watt’s ‘Views of Gentlemen’s Seats;’ Milton’s ‘Views in Ireland;’ Middiman’s ‘Views,’ &c. In 1782 Mr. Bell also issued the first part of his celebrated edition of the ‘British Poets.’ The taste engendered by these publications caused a growing love for art; and although it was but that dawn of patronage since broken into day, yet, such as it was, the engravers of the period were almost wholly occupied upon them; and, without disparagement to the beautifully illustrated works that have since appeared, many of them still stand unrivalled. Mr. Walker, an engraver, projected a work which, by employing the united talent of all the other works, should come in for a share of patronage; and, like a man of taste and judgment, cast his eyes on our artists. But Girtin, who was fast rising into fortune as well as fame, for a time refused his services; while Turner was at once engaged; and in the summer of 1793 he took his departure for Kent, to make the drawing of Rochester in this work. It was also at this time he commenced his first oil picture, a ‘View of Rochester.’ It was not the first visit he had made to this locality, and on the previous occasion he had received various commissions; but one gentleman, thinking with the Sandbys that water-colour was a secondary material, importuned the artist to work in oil, and actually bought the colours for him to paint with. Whether this picture11 was the first finished, is doubtful. Dr. Nixon, the present Bishop of Tasmania, has a picture, painted for his father by Turner, done during this journey, and finished while staying in the parsonage-house at Foot’s Cray, which is said to be the first oil picture he painted; but be this as it may, the first oil colours Turner used were those purchased in Rochester. Such a predilection had Turner for the Medway, that he himself encouraged the notion of his being a Kentish man. The result of Turner’s separation from Girtin was soon apparent in the works he now produced; and in this print of Rochester we see, amidst his careful touches, those principles of breadth and opposition which attended him through life.
Finding it more profitable to make his journeys at his employer’s expense – although, to his credit be it said, he was most moderate in his mode of travelling, and as economical with other people’s money as he was with his own – he from this time neglected no opportunity of visiting different counties; for we find him busy in Worcestershire and Wales, and for the present work he made the drawings of Bridgenorth, Matlock, and Birmingham; and in the former of these views the characteristics of Turner’s style, previous to 1809, are strongly and beautifully marked. His reputation advancing, caused him to be employed upon several works then in progress; and, therefore, we find only two of his plates in this series – Chester and Peterborough – published that year; and in the next, five, viz. Ely, Flint, Westminster, Hampton Court, and Carlisle: but in the two Exhibitions he had nineteen pictures and drawings. In the following year he had six pictures; and for this work he made the drawings of Wakefield and Sheffield; and as if he wished to illustrate his progress, being the last, he has made it one of his best. He had now given practical proofs of his talent as a painter, and the critics were loud in his praise; he also relinquished his engagement with Walker.
The first drawing Girtin made for the present work was the view of Windsor, which contrasts strangely with Warkworth and Bamborough, and with those two beautifully effective drawings of Totnes and Kingsweare. Girtin then made drawings of Pembroke, Marlow, Newcastle, Bamborough Castle, and Warkworth, part of the Marine Barracks at Devonport, Appleby, and Kingsweare, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Christchurch, Abernethy, and Tarnaway Castle, and last, if not the most artistic, yet one of a very pleasing and interesting character, Woolwich. It was no doubt during his journey into Scotland, as before stated, with Mr. Moore, that, amid the wild solitudes of Nature, Girtin unconsciously gathered materials for producing those startling effects by which he outdistanced all his competitors. Not but what, as we have already shown, he studied Nature in the neighbourhood of London, and long before this period made sketches among the ruins of the old Savoy Palace, amid the vast fragments of which he learnt to copy the mutilated masonry, with an accuracy which did him ‘yeoman’s service’ on a future day.
Up to this time, with scarcely an exception, the hues of Nature had only been intimated, not imitated, by weak washes or timid touches; for, as before stated, it was considered impossible to give anything like the effect obtained in oil to water-colour drawings. Girtin, as we have shown, thought differently; and while in Scotland he looked at Nature with his bright, unflinching, eagle-like eye; and saw how, when the sun burst out, the whole landscape was bathed in gold; and how, when it was hidden behind a cloud, the mountains were thrown into gloom and masses; he imitated these changes, making that dark, and sullen, and savage, which had hitherto in landscape-painting been only touched with a little stronger shade than the overhanging sky. He flooded his valleys with a dazzling sunlight, where the golden glory streamed down uninterrupted; and where the clouds hung far away, placed bold dashes of darkness upon the distant mountains, just as he had seen them sleeping under the overhanging shadows. He stamped with sublimity what had hitherto only been timidly touched; he saw how the evening shadows deepened under the trees, and gradually formed the beds on which the descending Darkness first laid down, until her whole length slowly covered the mountain’s side, and with a daring hand he drew the mantle over her repose.
Many tried to imitate him, but in vain: for at this period he left his elder competitor, Turner, far behind. He might have become, had he not been what he was universally called, ‘HONEST TOM GIRTIN,’ one of the wealthiest artists of the day. Amateurs came rushing daily to him for lessons, exclaiming, ‘Do but teach us how to draw with this daring and dashing effect, and we shall be content.’ But Honest Tom saw that the ‘Divinity stirred not within them,’ and as one who knew him from his ‘boyhood, to the day of his death,’ says, ‘He was unwilling to minister to their folly, and endeavoured to dissuade them from the attempt.’ He would neither flatter them, nor waste his time on them, nor take their gold, though he had no secret, but worked openly: no selfishness, but expounded to all his brother-artists the means by which he produced his effects;12 he called ‘a spade, a spade;’ and so was voted ‘low,’ and the would-be dashing colourists were envious and jealous, because of his unswerving honesty. Tom cared not – he would not pander to their vanity – would not lie to flatter them; but as he looked on their daubs out of his large, flashing black eyes, which could see more than any other artist, excepting Turner, he told them that they had no talent – that they were not ‘God-gifted’ – and so, instead of turning ‘toad-eater,’ and wallowing in wealth as he might have done, he put on his well-worn hat, and went and smoked his pipe with Jack Harris, the picture-frame maker in Gerrard Street,13 and a few other of his homely brother-artists, whom he was accustomed to meet there. He held the golden key in his hand, but refused to ‘Open, Sesame.’ What penurious old Turner of Maiden Lane, and his talented son, thought of Girtin, thus throwing away the guineas which they would have hoarded, may be readily imagined; and, perhaps, these thoughts passed through Turner’s mind on an after day, when, amid his reveries, they found utterance, as he looked back upon ‘the days of other years,’ and exclaimed, ‘Poor Tom!’
As a proof of Girtin’s love of his art, he established a Sketching Society, which was open to talented amateurs as well as brother-artists; and for three years did this little Society of Arts meet on winter evenings to make sketches and improve one another, under the friendly eye of the founder. This alone proves that, however much Girtin might dislike spending his time in the small-talk which formed the staple of amusement at evening parties, when men were willing to meet and spend the evening in intellectual and artistical amusement he at once proposed that they should assemble as a sketching society; and one who was a frequent visitor says, ‘No little coterie could be more respectable.’
The plan that Girtin proposed, and which was carried out, was, that on alternate occasions they should meet at each other’s apartments, and at every meeting make a sketch or drawing in colour or chiaroscuro from the same passage, which, before they commenced, was selected from one of the English poets. Each member, at whose house the parties met, supplied in turn the paper, ready mounted on small strainers, together with colours and pencils, and all the designs made during the evening were his property. They had tea or coffee when they first met, at six o’clock; over which they read and talked about the subject selected: after this they worked until ten, when a cold supper was set out, and at twelve they separated. Many of these ‘impromptu productions’ were gems, and were greatly admired. Turner never once joined them: he had no objection to meet Girtin alone, but he seems even then to have thought one of his sketches too great a price to pay for a supper, and not to have cared for the society of talented men. And so these meetings continued until Girtin’s health required that he should seek a change of climate.
Girtin was of a kind and friendly disposition, and ready to communicate whatever he had discovered in his practice to those who sought his assistance. He was naturally free, and occasionally associated with persons little qualified to improve his manners; for he had a shyness which made him shun rather than seek the acquaintance of the polite and well-bred world. When travelling to the North, he would take his passage in a collier; and his delight was to live in intercourse with the crew, eating salt beef, smoking, and exchanging jokes. When on shore in search of the picturesque he entered the inn-kitchen for refreshment, as Hogarth had done before him; and from the motley group of wayfarers sketched what struck his fancy, and in the midst of them enjoyed himself for the time, without sacrificing his love of independence; and thus stored up scenes and characters for his works, from the out-door and in-door world. This fidelity to Nature caused one of his contemporaries to say, ‘He that would sketch like Girtin, must be content to study like Girtin.’ He also asserts, that ‘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 used 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. This unsightly accident was not only overlooked, but in some instances really admired, insomuch 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.’
Nor must it be forgotten, while speaking of this great artist’s homely and social habits, that only a few years before, and even in his day, the first men of the age held their meetings at taverns – that Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, Garrick, and Beauclerk, used to assemble in the first-floor room at the Turk’s Head Tavern, in Gerrard Street: while on the ground-floor of the same house might be found Hogarth, Reynolds, Wilson, Romney, and others; and amongst them such eminent engravers as Woollett, Strange, Vivares, Brown, and Bazire; and that the upper-room was constantly exchanging visits with the lower, and vice versa.
Even grave family-men, ‘in these social times, mostly passed their evenings at the tavern, and sometimes prolonged their sittings to the hour indicated on the dial of Hogarth’s inimitable picture, “Modern Midnight Conversation;” for those who had neither imagination nor wit could sit comfortably intrenched behind their pipes, and smoke, and nod, and smile at the lively sallies of their more enlightened friends and neighbours. The pipe, the punch-bowl, and late hours, begat a disposition for mirth; and the morning tale, borne by the lounging amateur from one painter’s studio to another, was generally interlarded with the wit and frolic of the over-night.’ No marvel that Honest Tom Girtin, with his kind, good heart, and easy nature, was often one of the last to say ‘go,’ at these merry meetings sixty years since.
Nor must it be forgotten that he lived near that border-land on which, fifty years before, sign-painting, which was not yet out of fashion, had been the first stepping-stone that led to fame, and, what was even of more consideration, to employment, before book-illustrations became so popular. Harp Alley in Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, was the great show and sale-room just before Turner and Girtin’s day, and ‘where,’ says an eye-witness, ‘from end to end of that place, the works of the candidates for public favour and employment were to be found – a sort of Noah’s ark, in which animals of every hue, kind, and colour, might be seen; from the pencil of Patton, varied by the still-life of Keyse, whose legs of mutton, with every kind of butcher’s meat, would not have been less admired for their excellence as works of art in the present, as they were in the past days.’ The plate-glass fronts of our own time were undreamed of; and it was nothing uncommon for the hosts and tradesmen of those days to expend from fifty to a hundred pounds in the painting and fitting-up of a sign, which, as is well-known, often swung over the centre of the street: as may be seen in Turner’s view of Chepstow, in the present work. The style of painting required for this sort of art was a firm pencil and a decided touch, together with an effect which might tell at a distance; – no bad foundation for skilful execution in art. Who can tell, knowing that Girtin’s admiration of Morland caused him – as we have shown – to copy one of his pictures at an early period, how often his generous nature may have tempted him to have visited such men as Morland in the taverns, from the owners of which they often obtained employment? Perhaps this feeling of great-heartedness might in his prosperity sometimes induce him too often to frequent taverns, that he might offer his less fortunate brethren a dinner, which they would accept and share with him, though they would have spurned the offered half-crown with as much indignancy as Johnson did the shoes when at school. Through such condescension, springing alone, as it did, from kindness, those who had not a portion in the feeling and manly heart of Honest Tom Girtin might consider him ‘low.’ The Sketching Society,[fn]The Society consisted of ten members, viz. :
Sir Robert Ker Porter, Mr. J. S. Cotman,
[Sir] Augustus Callcott, [Mr] L. Francia,
Mr. T. R. Underwood, [Mr] W. H. Worthington,
[Mr] G. Samuel, [Mr] J. C. Denham,
[Mr] P. S. Murray. [Mr] T. Girtin.
Jane Porter, the celebrated authoress, was often present at the meetings, and many of the subjects were from her selection.[fn]which he founded and attended during the last three years of his life, shows that, with all his love for sociality, Girtin not only presided over a society of gentlemen, but was beloved by all whom he honoured with his company.
What Girtin’s associates might have been, had he chosen to have given the ‘cold shoulder’ to his old homely and warm-hearted friends and companions, will be best shown by stating that Lord Elgin was desirous that he should accompany him to Greece; he was also occasionally a visitor at the houses of the nobility, especially at Lord Hardwicke’s, the Earl of Essex, the Hon. Spencer Cowper, who had the largest and finest collection of Girtin’s drawings of any gentleman of that day, and Lord Mulgrave’s, and that after his death the latter nobleman offered princely aid to Girtin’s widow towards placing her son in a position in life, which she declined. The family into which our artist married, and with whom he was a great favourite, as he was with all who were honoured with his acquaintance, was one of some note in the mercantile world of that day; for Mr. Borritt had his house of business, as goldsmith, in Staining Lane, besides his residence at Islington; and it will be remembered that the latter place was the country sixty years ago, and that but few of our old City tradesmen had then their town and country-houses.
Girtin exhibited his first drawing in 1794, at which time he resided with his mother, at No. 2 St. Martin’s-le-Grand; it was a view of Ely Cathedral. In the following year he exhibited three drawings; these were views of Warwick Castle, and Peterborough and Lichfield Cathedrals. In 1797 he had removed to No. 35 Drury Lane, and in that year he exhibited ten drawings: – an Interior of St. Alban’s Cathedral, two views of Jedburgh, two of St. Cuthbert’s Holy Island, four views of York, and one of Ouse Bridge, in the same city. His next residence, in 1798, was at No. 25 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, in which year he exhibited nine drawings: – Coast of Dorset, Berry Pomeroy Castle, two drawings of Rivaux Abbey, Interiors of Exeter and Chester Cathedrals, Cottage from Nature, a view of a Mill in Derbyshire, and St. Nicholas’s Church, Newcastle. In 1799 he had again removed, and we find him, while residing at No. 6 Long Acre, exhibiting a Mill in Essex, two views of Beth-gellert, Warkworth Hermitage, a Study from Nature, and Tatershall Castle. Girtin next resided with his wife’s father, Mr. Phineas Borritt, at No. 11 Scott’s Place, Islington, and in 1800 exhibited – Bristol Hot Well, York, and Jedburgh. This year Turner had been elected an A. R. A., and it is possible that Girtin may have aspired to the same honour, which, while he continued to exhibit water-colour drawings only, he could not obtain; we therefore find him, in 1801, sending to Somerset House, for the first time, a picture in oil: this was Bolton Bridge, and the last time he appeared on the walls of the Royal Academy; for in the spring of the following year he went to France, and, as we have already stated, in the autumn of the same year he died.
Amid his numerous works he completed a panorama of London, said to have been one of the finest views of a city ever painted. It was amongst the first of those topographical representations which have, since his day, become so popular, and represented a view of St. Paul’s, with the buildings running east and west. It was taken from the lofty roof of the Albion Mills, which were then standing at the foot of the south side of Blackfriars Bridge, and was universally admired, when exhibited at Castle Street, Leicester Square, and in the Great Room, Spring Gardens. For several years after his death it was rolled up in the possession of an architect, named Howitt, in St. Martin’s Lane, who, about the year 1825, sold it to a Russian nobleman, and by him it is said to have been taken to St. Petersburgh.
Girtin, never one of the strongest, and fond of society, especially of his brother-artists, who were men of homelier habits than those who stand distinguished in the same profession in the present day, began, young as he was, to feel the effects of the late hours kept at Jack Harris’s, and similar places, which, with other constitutional infirmities, brought on a pulmonary disease; and in 1802 his medical adviser recommended a change of climate; and during the patched-up peace of Amiens, he went over to Paris in the spring of that year.
The document is continued in 1854 Documents 2
- 1 When Cooke, the engraver, was bringing out his work of the ‘Rivers of England,’ Turner heard that he intended to introduce some plates after Girtin’s drawing, and the following colloquy took place between them: – Turner: ‘So you intend to put in some of Girtin’s views?’ Cooke: ‘Yes.’ Turner: ‘Humph! Who will you get to touch them?’ (i.e., the proofs for the engraver to give the proper effect in translating colour into black and white.) Cooke: ‘You.’ Turner: ‘I shan’t.’ Cooke: ‘Oh! Mr. Turner.’ Turner: ‘I tell you, I shan’t.’ Cooke: ‘But your long acquaintance with Girtin!’ Turner: ‘I tell you, I shan’t.’ And so Cooke left him. A few days after, Cooke saw him again, when Turner began with: – ‘Well, Cooke, I’ve thought that matter over, and I’ll touch the plates for Poor Tom. Poor Tom!’ ‘Ah!’ said Cooke, ‘I thought you would.’ ‘Yes; I’ll touch them for Poor Tom. Poor Tom!’ and he continued repeating the words, ‘Poor Tom,’ as if to himself. Cooke took the proofs to him, and he worked upon them for a long time, bestowing great care, and ‘making them,’ as Cooke said, ‘quite his own;’ and, at last, after holding them individually at arm’s length, throwing them on the floor, turning them upside down, and flinging them in every direction, he said – ‘There, poor Tom! that will do. Poor Tom!’ and Cooke was about to take the impressions away, when Turner, clapping his arm upon them, exclaimed – ‘Stop! you must pay me two guineas a piece first.’
- 2 So scarce had impressions of these plates become, that, at Haviland Burke’s sale, last year, nine ordinary prints, with the margins cut, sold for five pounds.
- 3 John Raphael Smith, who at this time resided in King Street, Covent Garden, was the son of Mr. Smith the landscape-painter of Derby. He was an excellent mezzotint engraver and print-seller, and occasionally painted portraits and other subjects. He was about sixty when he died, in 1811.
- 4 That Turner exhibited drawings for sale in his father’s shop there can be no question, and that the elder Turner had some intuitive notion of his son’s merits is also a fact, for he has often grumbled to persons still alive about ‘Him making drawings for Dr. Monro for half-a-crown.’
- 5 Mr. Henderson, a gentleman of independent fortune, resided on the Adelphi Terrace, next door to Dr. Monro on one side, and David Garrick on the other. He possessed some fine pictures by Canaletti, which Girtin copied and carefully studied, as he did also the works of Piranesi: but we do not find that Turner attempted the same thing; he seems to have preferred copying the works of the water-colour artists of that day, particularly the drawings of antiquities, &c, by Thomas Hearne, of which Mr. Henderson had a fine collection.
- 6 Turner sold nearly as many pictures during the last six years of his life as were sold altogether before. This does not apply to his drawings, but to the oil-paintings only.
- 7 Turner was always quaint in giving his reasons for what he did. When Mr. J. Pye engraved the plate of Wycliffe for Whittaker’s ‘Yorkshire,’ Turner, in touching the proof, introduced a burst of light which was not in the drawing. Mr. Pye asked him his reason for so doing. He replied, ‘That is the place where Wickliffe was born, and there is the light of the glorious Reformation.’ ‘Well,’ said Mr. Pye, satisfied; ‘but what do you mean by these large geese?’ ‘Oh, they are the old superstitions, which the genius of the Reformation is driving away!’
- 8 Chambers Hall, Esq. has a drawing said to be by Girtin, but which bears evidence of Turner’s hand: in it the former – as if by an after-thought – has introduced a boat, with a figure pushing it along by means of a boat-hook; on the hill by the cathedral are some houses. And here also is the same handling and colour, as if, while working upon it, he had seen the drawing weak or defective in that particular part, and retouched it. Mr. Henderson has a copy of the same drawing, but by whom done, unless by his father, it is impossible to say but it also has the boat and figure above-mentioned.
- 9 Poor Dayes, Girtin’s preceptor, destroyed himself about eighteen months after the death of his talented pupil, at his own house in Francis Street, Bedford Square. ‘Just before Girtin’s death,’ says one of his contemporaries, ‘he happened to call on a collector of drawings – an old drivelling dilettante – who patronised every dashing style, when he 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 the works of a pupil of your old disciple’s,” replied the collector. “Pray, Mr. Dayes, look at them, and favour me with your opinion.” Dayes untied the portfolio, and on beholding the first subject, a large drawing of a mountainous scene among the lakes in Cumberland, he exclaimed, in his emphatic manner, “Oh, ye gods! the blue bag! the blue bag!” Dayes was a man of quick discernment, and very pointed in his remarks, and nothing could be more characteristic of the whole collection than his exclamation: and so he kept on, as he turned over every drawing, still making the burthen of his song, “Oh, the blue bag! the blue bag!” “So,” said he, “because Master Tom (Girtin) chooses to wash in dirty water, ergo, this puppy – this ass – this driveller – and the rest of the herd, forsooth – must wash in dirty water, too! Yes, by the Lord! and with the very puddle-water, which he has made more dirty!” Then laughing aloud he exclaimed: “Dietreci begat Cassanova! Cassanova begat De Loutherbourgh begat Frankey Bourgeois (the founder of the Dulwich Gallery): and he, the dirty dog, quarrelled with Nature and bedaubed her works.”’
- 10 Thomas Stothard, R. A., was apprenticed to a pattern-drawer in Spitalfields, at that time a very lucrative business for men in the position of mechanics, as its professors were supposed to be; and it will be understood that there was great demand for such artisans, when it is known that it was from the blocks upon which their designs were drawn that our calico-printers used to work, and that this was then done entirely by hand, one colour remaining until the other was dry. Now, seven different colours may be worked upon a piece of cloth thirty yards long in as many minutes. Dod, an artist of that day, had made a drawing for the ‘Novelist’s Magazine,’ which was so inaccurate that application was made to Stothard to correct it. Instead of doing this, Stothard made another drawing, for which he charged four shillings. This design was so satisfactory to Harrison, that he was employed to make other drawings at half-a-guinea each. One of these, we believe the first, a scene from ‘Joseph Andrews,’ engraved by James Heath, was seen by Flaxman; and he was so captivated with it, that he sought out and made Stothard’s acquaintance, and from that time they became friends. The new employment being more congenial to Stothard, soon induced him to abandon pattern-drawing. He was, however, not altogether an unknown artist; for the year before, viz. in 1778, he had exhibited a ‘Holy Family’ at the Royal Academy.
- 11 The view is Rochester Castle, with fishermen drawing their boats ashore in a gale of wind. The picture is well drawn, and carefully but thinly painted, – in just the manner one might suppose a water-colour artist would paint. He seems to have used semi-opaque colour to scumble with, in so fluid a state that one may distinctly see where it has run down the picture from his brush. It is, nevertheless, a clever production, with a strong resemblance to De Loutherbourg.
- 12 ‘It was a great treat to see Girtin at his studies; he was always accessible. (How different from Turner!) 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 their 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, 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, Vandyke brown and Cologne earth were combined with these tints, which gave depth and richness of tone, 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 neutralising 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 gamboge, indigo, and burnt sienna, occasionally heightened with yellow lake, brown pink, and gamboge; these mixed, sometimes, with Prussian blue. The shadows for the trees, indigo, burnt sienna, and a most beautiful 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. He so mixed his greys, that, by using them judiciously, they served to represent the basis for every species of subject and effect, as viewed in the middle grounds under the influence of Girtin’s atmosphere, when he pictured 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’ [quoting from Material: Pyne, 1823b].
- 13 Harris, beside making picture-frames, was a dealer in drawings, and through him both Girtin and George Morland often disposed of their works, as they both seemed to dislike dealing with collectors. By this means Jack Harris, as he was familiarly called, made money. Though Girtin was courted by the best society, he seldom mingled in it: perhaps he did not like fulsome praise – perhaps the manners of the upper-classes were unsuited to his old easy habits – and, more probable still, they looked for praise for their daubs; and he was too honest to lie! though he occasionally, as will be shown, visited the highest of the nobility.