Documents, Dated Watercolours and Early Accounts of the Artist
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R. A. Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by His Friends and Fellow Academicians (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, pp.91–128) (1862 – Item 1)
TURNER AND GIRTIN AT DR. MUNRO’s.
It is supposed that Turner’s early patron, Dr. Munro, of the Adelphi-terrace, was first attracted to his works by seeing some of his country sketches in the barber’s window in Maiden-lane.
It is not improbable, however, that Dr. Munro may also have heard of the clever lad through his friend Raphael Smith, the engraver, Morland’s friend, who was at this time employing a clever lad named Girtin, with Turner, to colour prints; and who was intimate also with Cozens, the celebrated landscape-painter who had accompanied Beckford, the young millionaire of Wiltshire, to Italy.
If indeed the acquaintance arose after 1790, when Turner began to exhibit, the lad’s own productions at Somerset House would have been quite enough to attract an exhibition-haunting amateur.
His other great patron in the Adelphi-terrace, Mr. Henderson, probably heard of Turner through Dr. Munro. Dr. Munro, one of George III.’s mad doctors (not the most famous), lived at next door, No. 4 or 6, I am not sure which; and Mr. Henderson at No. 3 or 4. Garrick, who died in 1779, had inhabited No.5, the centre house. Topham Beauclerk – Dr. Johnson’s great friend, so often mentioned by Boswell – had lived in the same row, built by the Scotch brothers whom the Earl of Bute patronized, on the site of one of the old Strand palaces.
On winter evenings (for in summer the lads were out on the Thames or in the country sketching) Turner and Girtin repaired to the Doctor’s costly furnished house, and spent an hour or two in sketching and in colouring. The ‘good Doctor,’ as Turner always called him in after-life, was in the habit of giving them half-a-crown each for their night’s drawing, and a supper afterwards.
By the aid of a catalogue of Dr. Munro’s pictures, now lying before me, I learn in what direction the kind Doctor’s tastes lay, and what pictures hung round the walls of the house in Adelphi-terrace when Turner first crossed its threshold.
The cheery fire, on those pleasant winter evenings, shone especially on a wild landscape by Salvator Rosa, the ‘Search for Orlando;’ on ‘A View of the Ponte Sesto,’ by Van Lint; on an Italian landscape, by Zuccarelli; ‘A Boy picking Fruit,’ by Snuyders; the ‘Condemnation of Haman,’ by Rembrandt – Esther, in sheeny white satin, miraculously mellow and dimpled with light, not to be forgotten, and a fascinating Gainsborough landscape, brown and transparent – an Italian villa, with a man leading horses, full of the Suffolk man’s witchery and ease.
Then the portfolios – swollen with wealth – for studying and copying; drawing the coloured sketches, and colouring the pencil studies.
Both lads, with the plastic minds of their age, must have derived deep impressions from these sketching and copying evenings. Here Girtin saw the Canaletti drawings of London and Venice that he so much loved to imitate. Here Turner saw the Loutherbourgs, the Hearnes, the Sandbys, and the Cozens’s that he learnt so much from: and which presently we shall find him first copying, then rivalling, and lastly excelling. Here, too, he saw many neat, careful, dry architectural studies by Dayes, Girtin’s master. Here too he saw Wilson’s and Gainsborough’s studies, and learnt from the first grace, and from the others dignity, harmony, and breadth.
Luckily, as I am enabled1 to tell my readers what kind of pictures adorned the walls of kind Dr. Munro’s handsome house in the Adelphi-terrace, I can also tell them in some degree what were the sketches the two lads executed under his eye.
I can imagine the two young artists – Turner and Girtin – looking round the walls and over the port folios. They both would admire the playful grace of Gainsborough’s sketchy landscapes: his airy pencillings, his ‘figures at a cottage-door,’ his ‘cart on a road,’ his ‘figures dancing,’ his ‘cows crossing a brook.’ Turner would chuckle too over the Suffolk man’s humorous ‘landscapes on blotting paper,’ and his blue paper would suggest to Turner the atmosphere that might be obtained by using such material. Dr. Munro, contemplating some day living at Harrow, would point out Gainsborough’s view of its pleasant hill on blue paper. Here Turner can see other Gainsboroughs – a ‘gentleman’s seat;’ ‘horses and cattle at a shed;’ ‘landscape, with pigs;’ ‘road scenes, with sheep;’ ‘trees and pool of water;’ ‘landscape, with tower;’ ‘river scene, with sloop and figures;’ ‘road scene, with mounted figures;’ and ‘rocky landscape, with waterfall.’ All misty, sketchy, graceful fragments of an unsuccessful landscape-painter’s poetry.
Then, if the Doctor is in a very good humour, he doubtless shows his boys the camera-obscura, with ten subjects of landscapes, sea-pieces, and moonlights, beautifully painted by Gainsborough; or takes down the spirited and clever sketch in oil, by the same artist, for them to look at – ‘A landscape with an Italian villa and trees, near a wood, in which is a man leading a horse.’
The Doctor is proud of this painter, for he has many copies from him, and sketch-books too, from which valuable hints are to be got.
Then the kind Doctor is rich in Cozens’s, which Girtin copies, and which Turner studies closely. There are landscapes and pen sketches, Swiss views and Italian views, particularly on the Neapolitan coast: the Bay of Salerno and the Tomb of Virgil are there, for the lads to learn aerial perspective and its poetry from.
Of Dayes too, Girtin’s master, with his neat small figures and his slight dry manner, there are many specimens, comprising coloured sketches of antiquities, and views in Wales and on the Lakes; Kentish scenes, castles and cathedrals, in blue and Indian ink, and the Thames from Greenwich Park: just as Turner was afterwards to sketch them.
And the portfolio held Hearnes too, and of the very scenes that Turner himself had already visited, or would soon visit and gather laurels at: views at Bristol, and on the Border, lonely castles and Scotch ruins, Wiltshire Druidical temples: and Edinburgh and Kenilworth so soon to be irradiated by Scott’s genius.
Then there was the dull tribe: Barrett, with his commonplace parks and waterfalls; Wilson, who despised both him and his contemporary, Smith of Chichester, with his broad but slight ‘Italian buildings in black chalk;’ his ‘Italian views and hills on blue paper.’ Of great Wilson, too, there is ‘Lambeth and Westminster from the river, on coloured paper heightened with white;’ ‘Cottage from the river on blue paper heightened by white;’ and ‘View on the Thames at Twickenham, on drab paper heightened with white.’
Paul Sandby, Wilson’s kind friend, was represented at Dr. Munro’s by a box of architectural designs; by views of Conway, Dartmouth, Windsor, Salisbury Cathedral, Glasgow, and Richmond Castle. These sketches must have tended to direct Turner’s mind as to what he should like best to paint in England.
Then of Loutherbourg, whose neighbour Turner afterwards became, and whose art he much admired! there were a ‘few washed views in Switzerland;’ pen-and-ink sketches on card, made in Wales; Indian-ink notes of English scenery, and studies of shipping and costume, and one special view in the neighbourhood of Schaffhausen.
For Girtin there were Canaletti drawings to copy; and for both, pen-washed, bistre, and Indian-ink drawings by Rembrandt, Ostade, Paul Potter, Van-dervelde; above all, a robust landscape in pen and ink by Titian, and Italian buildings by Claude, showing the very skeleton and framework of their art; besides flighty sketches by Kobel, Momperts, Boucher, and hosts of smaller men – all showing what to seek or what to avoid.
As Dr. Munro, in after years, bought whole bound volumes of Turner’s sketches of Italy and Switzerland, as well as books of sketches in Wales, round Dover, or on the Lakes, it is difficult to exactly distinguish from the catalogue which were the early sketches made in the Adelphi-terrace for half-a-crown a night and a supper, which system of sketching was afterwards continued when the kind Doctor removed to Harrow. One may feel, however, pretty sure that the earliest sketches were those of London and home subjects, and those that went at low prices, from being in a timid and imitative early manner.
Among those drawn for Dr. Munro, I may select ‘Views and ruins in colours on cards: View in North Wales;’ ‘a view of London from the Temple Gardens, in blue and Indian ink;’ ‘Hadley Church, Wilsden and Waltham;’ Norbury Park; shipping in Dover Harbour; ‘imitations of Loutherbourg;’ ‘views on the Thames;’ Boxhill, Mickleham, and Dorking Churches; the ‘Ruins of the Savoy Palace;’ and ‘a street in Dartford’ – the same, probably, that Girtin copied from Mr. Henderson’s sketch. Now, if these were the drawings sold for half-a-crown each, Dr. Munro’s kindness obtained a better reward than such truly disinterested kindness generally does; for we find, at the Doctor’s sale in 1833, the ‘View of London from the Temple Gardens’ selling at 4l. 4s., and the ‘Ruins of the Savoy Palace’ at 3I. 3s.; and by this time they are probably worth twice as much, and, for all I know to the contrary, may go on advancing in price.
Whether Girtin’s works already grew scarce or not, I do not know, but of Girtin’s drawings the Doctor does not seem to have possessed many. What he has, show us pretty well what sort of work Girtin did in those pleasant river-side rooms – views after Cozens, Hearne, and Barrett; pencil sketches of York; views in Surrey (Boxhill and Norbury Park amongst them, probably sketched in company with Turner). ‘Monmouth Bridge,’ is the furthest afield he seems to have gone; though ‘Foreign Views’ may be either copies, or some of the results of his last tour in France.
It was at the house of Mr. Henderson, a great amateur of art, in the Adelphi-terrace, that Girtin and Turner met to draw and copy, as they did also at Dr. Munro’s, in 1793. At Mr. Henderson’s, Girtin copied Canaletti’s works especially, and studied Piranesi’s prints. Mr. Henderson possessed many of Malton’s engraved London views, with Girtin’s copies of them.2 In every case the copy is the best of the two, for the copy is rather a paraphrase than a copy, and is always more thoughtful and judicious. For instance, Malton has a view of the Mansion House, with the Mansion House, the special object of the engraving, thrown into shadow. Girtin has copied it, and irradiated it with light, and thus it becomes the proper centre of the picture. Malton’s work struck me as very dull and unfeeling; but it has a breadth which perhaps Girtin admired, and it is never small and dry, or ‘cut up.’
The copies of Canaletti (particularly one done with the reed-pen, of the Rialto) are specially admirable; the little dotted touches are very free and decisive. In some of the copies of the Venetian pictures, the figures seem put in at once by the brush without pencil outline.
The same collection contains pencil sketches of scenes at and near Dover, with pig-tailed boatmen and old shaky sea-side houses, which were drawn by Mr. Henderson’s father, who was himself an admirable amateur artist. There is, for instance, a view of the chief street at Dartford (1794), copied by Girtin after an existing sketch by Mr. Henderson; executed, I suppose, as a sort of drawing lesson.
There are also various scenes after Hearne, one of Tintern, very admirable. There are also scenes on the river, varied from sketches by Mr. Henderson of the shot-tower and buildings opposite his Adelphi balcony.
But in Mr. Henderson’s collection there are two water-colour drawings that specially interest me, and these are two rival views of Dover Castle, made by Turner and Girtin after a sketch by Mr. Henderson. Both are weak and timid, for neither yet had probably seen chalk cliffs or sea. In Turner’s the cliff is out of all proportion; in Girtin’s there is a black roll of coast, daring, but altogether superfluous and untrue. In both, however, the boats (which they had already seen on the Thames) are well executed.
The same collection contains a copy by Girtin of Morland’s vulgar picture, ‘Dogs hesitating about the Pluck,’ ‘Dogs preparing to fight over their Food;’ but it was Dr. Munro’s and Mr. Henderson’s Canalettis that really formed Girtin’s manner, and gave him that crisp, staccato touch which gave such breadth to all his architecture.
Still, Girtin was at first little more than a monochromist; his local colour being far more sombre than that of nature. Latterly, he threw a golden tone over his work, that was Turner’s special delight. In old age, when a friend wished to please Turner, he had but to get from his portfolio some of ‘poor Tom’s yellow drawings,’ and Turner was happy.
It was the grandfather of the present Dr. Munro who employed Turner. He died in 1833, when all his drawings were sold; Turner, I believe, bought in many of his own.
It is said that long after Dr. Munro gave Turner a commission for one hundred drawings, but I suppose at the miserable old price, and as Turner was now rising, he wisely abstained from doing them.
And now I must devote a short chapter more especially to that ill-fated young genius, Girtin, a painter far too little appreciated, and who deserves to rank highest among English artists.
TURNER’S FRIENDLY RIVAL, GIRTIN.
Girtin was born in February, 1775; so that he was only two months older than his companion Turner. It was to Chambers Hall that Turner once said of one of Girtin’s yellow drawings, now in the British Museum, ‘I never in my whole life could make a drawing like that; I would at any time have given one of my little fingers to have made such a one.’ Girtin’s father was, I believe, a rope-maker, and was killed out hunting. His widow, with her two boys, the future painter and the future engraver, took rooms over a shop in St.Martin’s-le-Grand. She subsequently married a Mr. Vaughan, an eminent pattern-drawer; but this was not till near Girtin’s last illness, or after his death. Mr. Chambers Hall purchased his fine collection of thirty-six Girtin drawings (which he afterwards left to the British Museum, where they now lie buried) from Mr. Jackson, the father-in-law of Girtin’s half-brother, an eminent builder who contributed to the extension of Pimlico. Jackson bought these drawings of Girtin’s brother, who had laid claim to all he could find, in return for money lent. Girtin had died at his brother’s house, being too ill to be removed.
Girtin married the only daughter of Mr. Borritt, a rich liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company, who was fond of art, and had all but adopted the young artist. He regarded his son-in-law with great affection, and for years after could scarcely speak of him with dry eyes. Lord Essex, Lord Harewood, Lord Mulgrave, and Sir George Beaumont, were all patrons of Girtin. Edwards, in his malicious notice of Girtin, says, glancing at him, ‘Intemperance and irregularity have no claim to longevity.’ Girtin’s son, still living, a surgeon at Islington, says, ‘My father was almost ascetically temperate, and his taste always leant to the refined and elegant.’
Girtin was in early life apprenticed to Dayes, an architectural draughtsman, who had no sympathy for his genius, and treated him as a mere means of making money. Dayes was a conceited, jealous man, who eventually got embarrassed and committed suicide, it was supposed from envy at the progress of his contemporaries – Turner and his old pupil. His works (‘Tour in Yorkshire’ and ‘Art-Biographies’) were published after his death for the benefit of his widow.
Girtin, naturally bold and reckless, began soon to find that he was more than paying back by work the premium paid for his apprenticeship. He refused to wash in any more skies for Dayes, and demanded in justice the cancelling of his indentures. Dayes refusing, and finding Girtin obdurate, had him up before the City Chamberlain and committed to Bridewell as a contumacious apprentice.
Here Girtin amused himself by covering the walls of his cell with chalk-landscapes. The turnkey was at once delighted and astonished with these works of the imprisoned genius. He told all his friends about them, and brought many of them to see the frescoed cell. Amongst others, some lord or other; and the Earl of Essex happened to hear of the prison landscapes. He came and was delighted. He went at once to Dayes, bought up the indentures, and burning them before Girtin’s eyes, obtained his release, and took him down to the almost regal luxury of Cashiobury, where Girtin, free and happy, produced some of his greatest works; as Fra Lippo Lippi escaped from slavery by means of the portrait he took of the Moor his master, so Girtin, the contumacious apprentice, escaped from Bridewell by decorating the white walls of his cell with chalk landscapes.
At Raphael Smith’s – the pupil of Pether – Turner and Girtin met to colour etchings; and afterwards worked together, putting in skies and flat tints for the architects, and touching up sketches and topographical views for amateurs.
That Dayes never forgave his contumacious apprentice is, I think, quite clear from the fact, that when, years after Girtin’s death, he himself committed suicide under the pressure of debts, the following detracting account of Girtin was found among his papers, and published by his executors, among other fairer biographies of those contemporaries who had outstripped him in the race, and jealousy at whose success is said to have been one of the accelerating causes of his dreadful death. He says:
‘This artist died November the 9th, 1802, after a long illness, in the twenty-eighth year of his age. Biography is useful to stimulate to acts of industry and virtue; or by exhibiting the contrary, to show the fatal consequences of vice. While our heart bleeds at the premature death of the subject of this paper, it becomes equally an act of justice to warn young persons against the fatal effects of suffering their passions to overpower their reason, and to hurry them into acts of excess that may in the end render life a burden, destroy existence, or bring on a pre mature old age. Though his drawings are generally too slight, yet they must ever be admired as the offspring of a strong imagination. Had he not trifled away a vigorous constitution, he might have arrived at a very high degree of excellence as a landscape-painter.’
Of Turner, in 1804, Dayes says:
‘Highly to the credit of this artist, he is indebted principally to his own exertions for the abilities which he possesses as a painter, and for the respectable situation he holds in society. He may be considered a striking instance of how much may be gained by industry (if accompanied by temperance), even without the assistance of a master. The way he acquired his professional powers was by borrowing, where he could, a drawing or picture to copy from, or by making a sketch of any one in the Exhibition early in the morning, and finishing it at home. By such practices, and by a patient perseverance, he has overcome all the difficulties of the art; so that the fine taste and colour which his drawings possess, are scarcely to be found in any other, and are accompanied with a broad, firm chiaroscuro and a light and elegant touch. This man must be loved for his works, for his person is not striking, nor his conversation brilliant. He was born in Maiden-lane, where his father conducted a decent trade. Though his pictures possess great breadth of light and shade, accompanied with a fine tone of colour, his handling is sometimes infirm and the objects are too indefinite; he appears, indeed, to have but a superficial notion of form.’
Girtin, who had studied under a pupil of Pether, the mezzotinto engraver, and who obtained Malton’s traditions – whatever they might be worth – from Turner, Malton’s pupil, gained facility from print-colouring for Raphael Smith. By this re-drawing and touching up amateur sketches, and washing in skies for architects, he obtained his breadth of tone and facility of composition.
At Mr. Henderson’s and Dr. Munro’s he copied Piranesi and Canaletti, as well as Hearne, and many of the other topographical artists of the day. Like Turner, he also studied Cozens for gradations of tone and aerial effect (you always feel you can breathe in one of Cozens’s landscapes). From time to time he launched out strongly into the beautiful world of colour, his earliest works being mere monochromes in sepia. Here a red slab of tile, there a blue tinge of slate; here a patch of yellow moss, there a grey paling; by degrees, and timidly, colour began to rise over his works, and tinge them with lustre and beauty.
From Piranesi, Girtin got vigour; from Canaletti, his firm staccato touch; but his sense of art began to lessen his desire for truth, while with Turner, the same sense only increased it. His boldness is often recklessness; his vigour, carelessness and disregard of form; his breadth, always admirable, is sometimes conventional, and obtained by the sacrifice of truth. Girtin was a great artist, but he was not a poet, as Turner was.
Girtin and Turner’s first sketching trips were short flights up the Thames, to the rickety boat-sheds and fishermen’s houses at Westminster and Lambeth – old crippled buildings with overhanging gables, rusty planks crutched up with posts and logs and broken pillars – places where once cavaliers took wine, or where merchants dwelt – they delighted in these, finding in them the poetry of the ruins they had heard of elsewhere, but not yet seen. Besides, Sandby had already drawn attention to them. It was in fact a drawing of the Savoy that Girtin attributed his rise in the world to, as Turner did to his success with ‘Norham Castle.’
The Savoy that Girtin sketched was a water-side fragment of the old palace of John of Gaunt, partly rebuilt after Wat Tyler’s rebellion, by Various transmutations a rogue’s sanctuary, a deserter’s prison, a printing-office, a beggars’ haunt, and a parish church.
About the time that Turner was beginning his country tours, Girtin was also on the move. Mr. James Moore, an amateur artist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, following the example of Hearne’s and Sandby’s patrons, took the clever dark-eyed lad to Scotland with him to make drawings and help him in sketching, altering, and putting in effects. Several of these were afterwards somewhat unfairly – published, Mr. Moore’s name alone being appended to them. During this time Turner was busy at Oxford and Lincoln, in rivalry of numerous illustrated topographical works. Mr. Walker, an engraver, having projected a work that was to surpass them all. It was begun in 1793, and Turner was engaged on it; but Girtin, then beginning to be known, and more impulsive and independent than his friend, refused at first to join it.
For Miller’s ‘Picturesque Views,’ however, Girtin made drawings of Windsor, Totnes, Kingsweare, Pembroke, Marlow, Newcastle, Bamborough, Warkworth, the Marine Barracks at Devonport, Appleby, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Christchurch, Abernethy and Tarnaway Castles, and lastly Woolwich.
Girtin and Turner were better apart; the one in Kent and the other in Scotland, became more original. The one grew broader and more harmonious in colour, the other more delicate, accurate, and atmospheric; but neither forgot the lessons he had learnt from the vast fragments of mutilated masonry at the Savoy, or from the brick towers of Lambeth Palace; they remembered the white billowing clouds they had wondered at as they floated through the arches of the London bridges; they did not forget the red brazen ruins seen through crimson fogs, or the molten gold of London sunsets.
Back in London; Girtin was too frank and careless not to have many amateur followers. His imitators were jealous of him. If he saw a man had no talent, he told him so, for he was no oily courtier, no expediency-monger. One of his great cronies was ‘Jack Harris,’ a picture-frame maker in Gerrard-street, Soho. This Harris was also a dealer in drawings; and through his agency both Girtin and that wild reprobate Morland, both of whom disliked collectors, disposed of their works.
Girtin was a humorist, and that made him indifferent to high life, where fashionable indifferentism, reserve, and forced equality destroys all individuality. He disliked, too, the foolish chatter of dilettantes, and he was too rough and honest to praise sketches which were unworthy of praise; yet he had moments, after his visits to Cashiobury, when he would lament to his wife that, after being amongst great people, the manners of the women of his own rank in life became ungrateful to him. But once at Jack Harris’s chatting about art, or at a tavern club, and he forgot Cashiobury and all its attractions.
Girtin established a sketching-class, which was open to patrons and amateurs as well as to artists. For three years this little society of enthusiasts met on winter evenings for mutual improvement. ‘No little coterie could be more respectable,’ says a frequent visitor. How often the talent of the barber’s son must have been discussed at these pleasant evenings.
This society was the model, no doubt, for the celebrated one at whose meetings Chalons, Leslie, Landseer, long after, spent so many happy hours. They met alternately at each other’s houses. The subject was taken from an English poet, and each man treated it in his own way. The member at whose house they met supplied stained paper, colours, and pencils, and all the sketches of the evening became his property.
They met at six o’clock (hours were earlier then), and had tea or coffee; over their harmless cups they read the verses relating to the subject, and discussed its treatment and the effect it would naturally give rise to. After this, with heads down and bated breath, they worked hard till ten, when there was cold meat, bread and cheese, and such humble, solid fare, and at twelve, as the day expired, they separated with hearty greetings. Beautiful works of art were often produced in this impromptu way, and the first ideas of great pictures were often suggested in dreamy hints that had some times a charm greater almost than that of the completed truth. Turner would never join this club; he preferred working in solitude, and he could not at this time afford to sell a ten-pound sketch for a cup of tea and a slice of bread and cheese. Perhaps, too, he was at this time slow in execution, and found two hours insufficient to elaborate any thought worth painting.3
Girtin had by this time married the daughter of a rich goldsmith of the City, and began to assume a position in the art-world worthy of his excelling genius.
Girtin has been very unfairly set down as a care less, dissolute artist, fond of low society. Nothing can be more untrue. The fact is, he was of humble origin, and by nature rather shy. Early associations, a love of character, and a free, kindly disposition, made him a favourite with all ranks, from Jack Harris, the picture-frame maker, up to Lord Elgin and the Earl of Essex. The very vicissitudes of his wandering profession led him among poor wayfarers, whom he wisely sought to please and to extract amusement from. He was eminently a sociable man; he liked to have friends round him as he worked, which Turner (I think wisely) did not. As a shy man, he felt perhaps more at ease with the poor than with the rich, amongst whom the relative monetary condition compelled him to move as a tolerated inferior (a position degrading to honest pride). He began life not knowing but that he might have to go through it as a poor man; he therefore studied the poor, whom he might have to make his companions.
Far be it from me to sneer at Girtin’s loving humour and adventure, or going to Northumberland in a dirty collier, eating salt beef, smoking black pipes, and bandying North-country jokes. A young prig of a dandy would have maintained a dogged silence, except now and then to quote the Greek ‘Delectus’ and express his nausea and disgust at the general filthiness of the vessel, and the boorishness of the ‘plebs’ the ‘hoi polloi’ the ‘crew.’ The one would have been dubbed ‘a cursed jackanapes,’ the other have been cheered at parting as ‘a right good-hearted fellow as ever trod shoe-leather.’
In the Inland counties Girtin resorted to the inn-kitchen, just as Hogarth would have done when he visited Salisbury or Rochester. He would there quaff his ale and sketch the waggoners and postboys, as Morland sketched smugglers and fishermen in the Isle of Wight cabins, or Salvator Rosa the robbers of the Abruzzi. Here he was independent, free, and happy: at Cashiobury every word and look had to be planned according to the rules of polite slavery.
Had Girtin stooped to flattery, there is no knowing what social eminence he might not have gained. The inn-kitchen was not his from any necessity, but from choice. Lord Elgin wished to take him to Greece with him, just as previous noblemen had taken Hearne and Sandby, and as Beckford took Cozens to swell his suite. There were gentlemen of high birth among the members of his sketching club, of which Miss Jane Porter, the novelist, was also, I must not forget to mention, a frequent visitor and chooser of subjects. Girtin also visited at Lord Hardwicke’s (the Earl of Essex was his great patron). The Hon. Spencer Cowper had the finest collection of Girtin’s drawings of any one of that day. Lord Mulgrave also admired his frank spirit and his genius, and after his death offered princely aid to the widow to educate her only son, but she refused it with her husband’s own brave independence.
Girtin’s father-in-law, Mr. Borritt, of Mincing-lane, was a goldsmith of some note in his day, and had his country house at Islington.
From the subjoined epitome of Girtin’s career, we shall see that he never manifested the prudence and progressive ambition of his friend and rival Turner. He did not exhibit at all till 1794, when Turner had been four years an exhibitor. He did not attempt oil-painting (his only chance of becoming an R. A.) till 1801, when Turner had essayed oil-painting many years. The next year he went to France for his health, and in the autumn of the same year he died.
Turner went on his first foreign tour the year his friend died. In his compulsory visit to the Continent alone, Girtin anticipated his younger rival.
An epitomist of his career says: ‘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 Church, 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 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 Borrit, 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 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 in Castle-street, Leicester-square, and in the Great Room, Spring-gardens. For several years after his death it was rolled up and 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. Petersburg.
‘In Paris 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.” 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 Aug. Sept. Oct.
16 6 4 2 4!!!
18 12 9 29
25 16 17 the last.
‘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.’4
The drawings Girtin made in Paris during the lull of the Peace of Amiens were made under circumstances of great difficulty. He was forbidden to sketch, so he drew them from the window of a fiacre. They are very elaborate, and more full of colour than his previous works, yet broad and free, with something in the village-scenes of the dotty Edridge manner that Prout afterwards imitated so successfully. The figures, even in masses, are painted with great truth and beauty.
But gradually the bony hand came nearer and nearer, pushing him onward towards the clean square-cut grave. Fame might put by her crown – it was not to be for him.
Girtin had never been strong, and yet had dangerously indulged in late hours. Intemperate, he never was. Work all day of the brain, and fatigue of the body, overtaxed to bear the social fatigue of sitting up half the night, brought on pulmonary disease. The spring-time of 1802, spent in the milder and more equable climate of France, could not save him, especially when the invalid still spent half his day at work.
Poor Girtin died the very autumn Turner went to Macon to see the vintage there. He died at Frome, in Somersetshire, and was buried in St. Paul’s, Covent-garden. Turner, who always loved to speak of ‘Poor Tom,’ must have pondered much on his death, and have set to work with greater vigour than ever to develop his own talent, that might so soon be quenched in the cold earth. His generous heart could never have felt envy at Girtin’s talent, what ever foolish friends and small malignant enemies may have done to rouse his jealousy: he was incapable of such a base passion.
Girtin was first instructed by Mr. Fisher, a drawing-master in Aldersgate-street, but afterwards by Dayes, who ridiculed the low, dirty colour of his imitators, and who eventually, getting embarrassed and in debt, killed himself about two years after Girtin’s death.
Girtin, the son of the small tradesman in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, the son-in-law of the rich goldsmith of Mincing-lane, had risen to be one of the first artists of the day. He now received a handful of guineas for what Dr. Munro of the Adelphi-terrace used to hand him a single half-crown. Long ago he had cast off the small dry manner of his master, Dayes, the quondam miniature-painter. A friend of noblemen, a welcome guest at Cashiobury, Girtin returned to his simple dusky house in London, to betake himself again with a keen relish to his old sociable ways, to his cheerful tavern clubs, and to his old cronies the picture-makers and the picture-dealers. In the summer, there was his tour to sea-washed towns or pleasant inland cities; in the winter, his sketching club and his days of quiet study. There was Turner, too, to meet and crack jokes with. But, alas! There was both a good and an evil genius attending Girtin as he stood at the easel or as he sat over his wine. Before his eyes there was a bright-winged Fame stretching a golden crown; behind his back, a black skeleton stretching a bony claw. I do not think dissipation, but the late and irregular hours of a careless bibulous age, had under-mined Girtin’s health, perhaps never very robust. Imprudences in sketching, neglect to change wet clothes, fatigues of various kinds, had changed the young artist.
Sunken eyes, hectic flushes, night perspirations, hollow cough, all fatal symptoms indicating consumption; Girtin must go to France. The Peace of Amiens is concluded; no more ‘yellow drawings’ for Turner, his friendly rival, to praise – no more sunny days on the Thames or the Ouse – no more watchings of London and the great dome, azure with its circumambient veil of air, from the roof of Black-friars mills – no more watching the twilight lose its transparency and turn to solid darkness over Welsh mountains. There are but a few short months, and the black train will thread the gate of the Covent-garden churchyard, where poor Tom now lies a-cold.
Turner painted his friend Girtin’s portrait in oil. It is, I believe, still extant, but I have never seen it. I know well the admirable stalwart likeness Cornish Opie took of him.5 It shows me the frank, generous nature of the hearty, kindly fellow whom Turner and every one would love; the strong black brow, the crisp dark hair curling down over it, the keen, far-seeing eyes, the bold chin, the bold features. And as I look at it I think of Turner’s words in after-life, ‘If Tom Girtin had lived I should have starved,’ as indicative of the great admiration the survivor felt for the dead man. There were, indeed, at the time of Girtin’s death, many who looked upon him as a greater artist than Turner; there are many now who think, had Girtin lived, that he would have surpassed Turner.
I do not. Girtin’s prodigious dash, vigour, and breadth had become, it is true, the rage, so that his foolish admirers even imitated his low tone by washes of dirty colour, and with hues never seen in heaven above or on the earth beneath. They smeared immense sheets of atlas with brown and indigo, and thought at one swoop that they had imitated their master, Girtin’s gem-like depth and his grand simplicity. But Girtin, though sometimes rapid, was strikingly patient. He was as bold as Wilson; he was also as careful. His vigour and richness he had got, not merely by copying Canaletti, but by looking at nature with his own eyes. Girtin, who at first began with mere neutral greys and greens, soon advanced to laying the chiaro scuro with the three primitive colours, producing warm and cool russets by their combination, and afterwards glazing. Subsequently, however, like Turner, Girtin laid in at once the local colour that he saw in an object.
I do not think that Girtin had an imaginative mind. He had a fine, dashing, broad manner, frank, pure, and honest as his own nature; but he could never have designed the ‘Dragon of the Hesperides,’ nor could he have thrown such an atmosphere of poetry round the old Temeraire as Turner did. His mind was not so far-reaching, so insatiably active, so comprehensive. He was a social man, and he did not live for his art alone; he was not the enthusiast, all compact, like Turner, and yet I have seen an evening view at Battersea by him so full of tranquil poetry, that I have for the moment been inclined to rank him almost above Turner. Even Cuyp himself scarcely ever produced a harmony more perfect, more full of inner, yet half-dimmed light. It had some thing of De Wint’s low-toned colour, but it was instinct with a higher genius.
‘Just before Girtin’s death,’ says one of his contemporaries, ‘Dayes happened to call on a collector of drawings – an old drivelling dilettante – who patronized 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,” 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 DeLoutherbourg! Loutherbourg begat Frankey Bourgeois (the founder of the Dulwich Gallery); and he, the dirty dog, quarrelled with Nature and bedaubed her works.”’
A contemporary writer says of Girtin:
‘It was a great treat to see Girtin at his studies (unlike Turner), 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 towards effecting a general union or harmony. His light stone tints were put in with thin washes of Roman ochre, or 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 neutralizing the previous tones, and by throwing them into their respective distances, in 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, some times, 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 re-present 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.’
The following is another somewhat different version of some of Girtin’s favourite tints:
‘For blue clear skies, washes of indigo and lake; for cloud shadows, Indian red and indigo, with an occasional addition of lake. For light stone, thin washes of Roman ochre, or the same mixed with light red; for cooler spaces, a grey composed of light red and indigo; for brighter surfaces, a mixture of ultra marine and light red. For brick buildings, Roman ochre, light red, and lake, or a mixture of Roman ochre, lake, and indigo, or Roman ochre, madder brown and indigo, or burnt sienna and Roman ochre, or madder brown and Roman ochre, together with all possible combinations of these colours. For foreground buildings, Vandyck brown and Cologne earth were mixed with the above tint, and give a rich glow. For autumnal trees, he used greens composed of gamboge, indigo, and burnt sienna, occasionally heightened with yellow lake, brown pink, and gamboge, or sometimes mixed with Prussian blue. For tree shadows, indigo and burnt sienna, or a still more beautiful and harmonious one of grey and madder brown. Girtin’s favourite greys were Venetian red and indigo, or Indian red and indigo. For a warm, and cold, and harmonious one, of Roman ochre, indigo, and lake.[’]
Turner’s and Girtin’s early studies were 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 grew on the decaying timber. 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 a cathedral are some houses, and here also is the same handling and colour, as if, while working upon it, Turner 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.
Girtin, like Turner, was beyond his age. His mind was an original one. Paul Sandby, Michael Angelo Booker’s master, was truthful and picturesque; Hearne was chaste in manner; Cozens was better than either, for he was original and poetic, and had a great power of representing vastness of space, but still his colour was scarcely more than tinted chiaroscuro. Before that we had little but pasticcios of Pillemant and Chatelain, touched in black chalk and tinted, or drawings with penned outlines, shaded with Indian ink, and washed with thin colour. Girtin and Turner invented modern water-colours, and Girtin was one of the first to give the correct local colour of each object. He, however, neglected form and detail, and was careless in execution. He no longer used one shadow-colour for every object; he aimed at low chiaro- scuro; splendid tone and magical effect of colour. His mountains were grand; his hazy vapours of receding darkness admirable; his valleys blue and fresh; his light was exquisitely carried through.
His masses were low, broad, and abrupt; his harmony low-toned, but perfect. His clouds were generally in large groups, but sometimes quiet, serene, and simple.
‘He laid on his skies first,’ says a contemporary; ‘they were always remarkably luminous’. Sometimes he used warm tinted paper and left it for the light; his moonlight was brilliant, his variety of light and shade captivating; but his style was not light and elegant enough for pastoral and classical landscapes, like Turner’s. Girtin was a poet in a masculine way, but not an idealist.
Dayes, his master, whose temper was neither amiable nor happy, used to deride Girtin’s imitators, who exaggerated all his faults. They rudely opposed cold and warm colour; they introduced shapeless architecture and nondescript trees; they left blank spaces; their animals and figures were incoherent; their darks were dotted and splashed.
It is said that Girtin was one of the first to attempt an evening effect in water-colours. He had gone to an old town and made an outline sketch of it in the daytime. The same evening he passed it again, and the dark arches, the reflections, and a gleam of pale horizon determined him to attempt a twilight effect; he did so, and succeeded.
Gainsborough’s cork models and careless blue paper drawings had been as mischievous to art as the elder Cozens’s mode of studying compositions from the chance figures formed by paint splashed into a China plate. So had been Sandby and Hearne’s efforts to throw back the distance by darkening the foreground and making it blacker towards the lower edge, or perpetually introducing banks and hollow trees for deep shadows, in their right- or left-hand corner.
But slowly improvement had come. J. Varley, who taught drawing, had introduced a classic air and poetical effect; W. Havell, who had a great love for Cumberland scenery, was broad, bold, and highly finished in style, taking out his high lights for future glazing by bread, handkerchief, and clean brush.
Heaphy, whom Reynolds praised, delighted in night-cellar, fish-market, and low scenes.
Cristall, whose execution was broad, bold, and slight, drew classic figures, Virgilian peasants, and cottage groups in a large manner; but Girtin surpassed them all in depth, breadth, and harmony.
Canaletti for touch, and Rubens for colours, were Girtin’s chief models. He first introduced the system of drawing upon lined rough double cartridge paper (purchased at a shop at Charing-cross); by this means he got force and freedom, and avoided ‘the spotty, glittering glare’ of the ordinary white paper. His paper became so fashionable that collectors even liked to see across their Girtin drawings the mark of where the paper had been hung to dry across a string. He first drew in his work with a reed pen, but latterly, to avoid hardness and edginess, he only blotted in the general form with Indian ink. His enemies said he used the architect’s rule too much, as in his copies of Canaletti, and that his effects were tricks; but this is absurd, for he owed his success to his free hand and sure eye. He used, too, a richer palette than his contemporaries, except Turner; and made water-colour painting more resemble oil.
‘Whoever inspected his palette,’ says an art-critic, ‘would find it covered with a greater variety of tints than almost any of his contemporaries employed. Mr. Moore was his first patron, and with him he went a tour into Scotland. The prospects he saw in that country gave that wildness of imagery to the scenery of his drawings by which they are so pre-eminently distinguished. He also went with Mr. Moore to Peterborough, Lichfield, and Lincoln; and indeed, to many other places remarkable for their rich scenery, either in nature or architecture. That gentleman had a drawing that Girtin made of Exeter Cathedral, which was principally coloured on the spot where it was drawn; for he was so uncommonly indefatigable, that when he had made a sketch of any place, he never wished to quit it until he had given it all the proper tints’.
The best pictures of Girtin’s now in the possession of his son at Islington are ‘Stoke Pogis Church,’ ‘A Mill in Essex’ (splendid in tone and breadth, which occasionally degenerates to carelessness), ‘Kirkstall,’ ‘Rivaulx,’ ‘Ouse Bridge, York.’ Mr. Chambers Hall had gone to try and purchase some of Mr. Jackson, when in the next room he over-heard him rating Lord Essex for insolently coming to him and treating him with aristocratic pride as a mere vendor of pictures. After this, of course Mr. Hall despaired of prevailing on him to part with any of the pictures, but, to his astonishment, Mr. Jackson presented him with them all.
The artist of Turner’s admiration, after Girtin, was Reynolds. He drew his purse to buy Sir Joshua’s palette to present to Shee. ‘His admiration for Girtin took a less tangible form,’ says a certain sneerer.6 ‘In a fit of generosity he talked of erecting a monument to mark the grave of his friend and rival in Covent-garden churchyard; but when the amount was named – a few shillings over ten pounds – he shrugged his shoulders, and rested satisfied with the bare intention. The grave, we are sorry to say, is still unmarked; a headstone to Girtin would be a graceful tribute from either the Old or the New Water-colour Society.’ Now all this is just an instance of the way men write when they are determined to blame. A tombstone was put up to Girtin, but whether by Turner or not, I do not know. A friend of mine saw it, made a sketch of it, and warned the sexton of its precarious state. It has now been removed.
- 1 By means of a catalogue of Dr. Munro’s pictures, kindly supplied to me by G. Christie, Esq.
- 2 Among those the present site of the Bank, and also St. George’s, Hanover-square, with a sedan-chair passing.
- 3 The Society consisted of ten members: T. Girtin, the founder; Sir Robert Ker Porter; Sir Augustus Callcott; J. R. Underwood; G. Samuel; P. S. Murray; J. T. Colman; L. Francia (pupil of Girtin’s); W. H. Worthington; and J. C. Denham.
- 4 This does not prove much.
- 5 Now at the house of Mr. Girtin, Canonbury-square.
- 6 Mr. Peter Cunningham.