John Lewis Roget, A History of the ‘Old Water-Colour Society’ … Proceeded by an Account of English Water-Colour Art and Artists in the 18th Century (Roget, 1891, vol. 1, pp.81–124) (1891 – Item 1)





Girtin and Turner with Dr. Monro – Early drawings – Mutual relations – Different dispositions – Turner’s admiration of Girtin – Girtin’s birth, parentage, and early life – Apprenticed to Dayes – Imprisonment and release – Colouring prints – London river scenes – Work for architects – Mr. Henderson – Masters studied by Turner and Girtin – Girtin’s exhibits at the R. A. – Sketches in Wales – Teaches amateurs – Taken to North by Mr. Moore – Influence of mountain scenery – Draws again for ‘Walker’s Magazine’ – Changes of address – Charged with mannerism – Processes and materials – Taking out lights – F. Nicholson and the Earl of Warwick – Influence of Girtin’s ‘style’ – His perseverance – Habits when sketching – Patrons.

TURNER and Girtin were of one age, born in 1775, and acquainted before they studied together at Dr. Monro’s and perhaps shared the same candle of a winter’s evening. It is not exactly known at what dates they began to work there, or how long they so worked in company. A memorandum by the late Mr. John Pye, the engraver, tells us that the first mention of Turner in Dr. Monro’s journal is in 1793, and that Girtin was not employed by him as long as Turner was. He says that ‘Dr. Monro engaged them at two or three shillings apiece and a good supper, to put in effects of black and white and of colour into black lead outlines.’ When the Doctor removed to Adelphi Terrace,1 they were on the verge of manhood, and the proficiency of each had been already recognized. Girtin, as we have seen, had had a design engraved by the Walkers in the new ‘Copper Plate Magazine’ in 1792; and Turner, who had been an Academy student since 1789, had in 1790, when fifteen years of age, shown his first work at Somerset House, a tinted drawing of Lambeth Palace,2 to be followed by others for many successive years.

Dr. Monro had himself been buying Turner’s youthful drawings at two guineas apiece,3 from his father, a thrifty little hairdresser in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden; who, having many customers, had managed to establish a good connection among patrons, to the advantage of his clever son. Young Turner had now set up a studio of his own, in Hand Court, close to his father’s shop.

The acquaintance between Girtin and Turner is said to have commenced during a joint employment, as lads, to colour prints for John Raphael Smith, painter and mezzotint engraver, who also carried on an extensive trade, as a publisher and print-dealer, in King Street, Covent Garden. It is not improbable that the Doctor’s acquaintance with them was made while they were thus engaged. There is not much known as to what kind of original work Girtin produced under Dr. Monro’s hospitable roof; but Turner’s grey drawings, some of them based perhaps on his host’s own sketches, are met with from time to time. When Dr. Monro’s collection was sold, in 1833, Dr. Burney and Turner were together in the sale room. ‘I understand,’ said Turner, pointing to some of the lots to which his own name was attached, ‘that you have the bad taste to admire these things more than I do now.’ ‘It will be sufficient for me to say,’ answered the polite connoisseur, ‘that I admire everything you do, Mr. Turner.’ ‘Well,’ returned the other, a little flattered, ‘perhaps they are not so bad; for half a crown – and one’s oysters.’4 It is possible that Girtin also may have had a hand in some of these drawings, there being good authority for saying that he made a great number of outlines, some of which the Doctor got Turner to tint in grey, and just work afterwards with colour; and that Girtin complained of this as not giving him the same chance of learning to paint.5

It was by the attraction of like proclivities in art alone that the two lads were brought together. As they grew up, it appeared that their characters and tastes were in other respects widely different. Turner, it is well known, was reticent of his knowledge, and close as to his methods of work. Girtin, on the other hand, was of an open, careless, and sociable disposition, always ready to impart what he knew, and assist even his rivals in art. As to their ‘human relationship,’ we have, as Mr. Monkhouse observes, in his ‘Life of Turner,’6 very little information. ‘Turner,’ he writes, ‘always spoke of Girtin as “Poor Tom,” and proposed to, and possibly did, put up a tablet to his memory; but there are no letters or anecdotes to show that what we all mean by “friendship” ever existed between them.’7 What Girtin thought of Turner we do not know; but the latter declared that ‘Tom was a brilliant fellow,’8 and always expressed a high admiration of his abilities. Girtin’s son, however, told Mr. Jenkins that he had twice written to Turner upon some matter of interest to him about his father, but that Turner never had the courtesy to answer his letters. Although Turner’s name is, as it deserves to be, incomparably the greater in the history of painting, that of his short-lived confrère in art demands for several reasons the first, and in some respects a higher, place in the present record.

THOMAS GIRTIN was the elder son of a rope-maker in Southwark,9 who is said to have done a large business in cordage for shipping. Dying young (Thornbury says he was killed when hunting), he left his two boys, Tom and Jack, to the care of his widow, who took rooms for the three ‘over a shop’ at No. 2 St. Martin’s-le-Grand, in or about the year 1783. Such at least is the date if, as it is alleged, Tom Girtin was eight years old at his father’s death. For he seems to have been born on the 18th of February, 1775. Some writers, including Pilkington, Redgrave, and Miller, misled apparently by an obituary notice in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ give the date 1773, which may there be a misprint. But the date 1775 accords with the age given, both on his tombstone and by Dayes (to whom he had been apprenticed), and also assigned to him by his own family. Pye, in his MS. Notes, gives the same date, as copied from a mourning ring worn by his widow, and – best evidence of all – from one worn by his mother, who survived him.

‘From his earliest childhood,’ says Pye,10 ‘he displayed a decided passion for drawing and modelling;’ covering ‘every scrap of paper that came to hand,’ add the Messrs. Redgrave,11 ‘with his boyish fancies; but,’ continue the latter writers, ‘as he himself said that other boys of his own age, ten or twelve, who amused themselves or idled in the same way, drew as well as himself, we may be assured that there was nothing very marked in these childish efforts.’ His mother, humouring his taste, allowed him to take some elementary lessons in drawing from one Mr. Fisher, of Aldersgate Street, close by; and, when he was old enough, apprenticed him to Dayes.

Thornbury, in his ‘Life of Turner,’ gives a melodramatic account of Dayes’s unjust behaviour, and Girtin’s subsequent rescue from his tyranny. The apprentice, finding himself regarded only as a means of getting money, and that he was paying back in work more than the value of his premium, rebels, and is cast into prison for contumacy. There he shows his genius by decorating with landscapes the walls of his cell. They astonish the warder and attract the curious; and then there comes upon the scene a deus ex machinâ in the shape of the great Earl of Essex, who buys up the indentures, burns them before the young artist’s eyes, and carries him off to ‘the almost regal luxury of Cassiobury, where Girtin, free and happy,’ produces ‘some of his greatest works.’

All this reads rather like a picturesque romance introduced for the sake of a learned parallel drawn from the life of ‘Fra Lippo Lippi;’ and some will prefer the tale in the less varnished, if somewhat caustic, words of John Pye.10 Young Girtin, he tells us, soon excelled his master, which ‘this jealous and small-minded creature’ never forgave him. The praise bestowed upon his pupil was gall to him, and increased his hatred. In order to check his progress, he employed him to colour prints week after week and month after month. This was his employment till, feeling himself designed for better things, he expostulated with Dayes, telling him he was placed with him to learn to draw, not to colour prints. His tyrant insisted on his obedience. Girtin refused; on which Dayes committed him to prison as a refractory apprentice. The Earl of Essex, hearing of his imprisonment, went to see him, and saw that he had covered the walls of his room with spirited sketches. Pleased with the young man’s frank and open manner, he released him from confinement and from the tyranny of Dayes by buying up his indentures; and from that time to the day of Girtin’s death, the Earl continued to be one of his kindest friends and patrons.

We have seen, however, that Girtin in these days was not above turning an honest penny by ‘colouring prints.’ It was shortly after his pupilage with Dayes that he was engaged by Raphael Smith for this sort of work. The occupation was not quite of the infantine kind which we are accustomed now to consider it. It is true that modern children get an early knowledge of colour from so using their boxes of paints; but it is also true that water-colour art itself was, in its infancy, almost confined to a similar practice. There exists a curious treatise, a tract of sixty-four octavo pages, ‘printed for J. Peele, at Locke’s Head in Amen Corner, Paternoster Row, 1731,’ entitled The Art of Painting and Drawing in Water-Colours, ‘put together,’ as the writer tells us, ‘after years of study and labour, at the instance of a noble friend for his instruction’ in the said art. It treats mainly of the sources and mode of preparation of certain ‘transparent colours of every sort.’ But the chief or only use to which these pigments are described as applicable, is the colouring or tinting of engravings. One of the leading chapters is headed, ‘Of colours for illuminating of prints in the best manner, or of Painting in Water Colours.’ And the few practical instructions which follow, show that there is a certain technique to be studied even in so apparently simple an operation. If the paper be ‘pure white,’ no colour is to be used upon it. All ‘heavy colours,’ that is to say colours with much body, such as vermilion and Indian red, will, unless used in moderation, ‘drown the shades or strokes of the engraver.’ Sometimes, however, adds the writer, in a saving clause of perhaps unintended irony, ‘they had better be hidden than preserved.’13 From this early colouring of engravings the use of transparent water-colour had been extended, as we have seen, to the staining and tinting of grey drawings; and when aquatint came afterwards to be extensively employed as an efficient means of multiplying such coloured designs almost in facsimile, the occupation of washer became, as we shall see, a regular branch of business, in which many persons were employed by the publishers of prints. It is not a bad kind of drill for training a young artist’s hand; for some practice is required to lay washes evenly and of due tone, as indeed to do anything well, down to so simple a matter as turning the handle of a barrel organ.

But Girtin, and Turner with him, were at the same time taking lessons from nature. The shores of the Thames at Westminster, Lambeth, and Chelsea, not then, or for very many years to come, bound in and stiffened by a granite border, but irregular and ragged, with a garniture of mud-banks, and abounding in picturesque groups of stranded barges, floating river-craft, and old ramshackle wharves, afforded prolific subjects for an artist’s pencil. Girtin said that a study he made of the steps of the old Savoy palace then in ruins ‘was a lesson from which he dated all the future knowledge he displayed in the pictorial representation of ruined masonry.’14 Thus they acquired skill with the brush, which got them other professional work besides that of colouring prints. Between 1788 and 1790 both Girtin and Turner were employed by architects to wash in skies and perhaps add backgrounds as well as to lay flat tints. And so we find Tom Girtin at seventeen or eighteen selected to make topographic drawings for Walker’s magazine,15 and one of the young artists at work at Dr. Monro’s.

There was another amateur and collector of landscape drawings, a very near neighbour of Dr. Monro’s, who, probably following his example, allowed young artists to make copies from the works of older masters. This was Mr. John Henderson, who lived at No. 3 or No 416 Adelphi Terrace. Both Girtin and Turner availed themselves largely of the privilege so offered; and as the copies they made, or some of them, remained in Mr. Henderson’s possession, and have now, under his son’s bequest, become national property, they may be studied as living illustrations of the early tastes and tendencies of these two artists, and of the difference between them.

‘It would seem that the processes of education they respectively adopted were the inverse of one another; that Girtin acquired a style of his own by sketching from nature, and used it as a language to interpret the works of other artists; while Turner, in the early part of his career, studied the works of other artists in order to obtain a command of their style and manner, that he might apply them afterwards as he found occasion in the varied interpretation of nature. It was not until he had tried his hand against every painter in succession that he formed his own distinctive style. In the wide range of his practice, the great painter comprised, absorbed, and finally assimilated all. It is fair to assume that among the original artists from whom he learnt a lesson was his early friend and companion, Tom Girtin.

‘Turner was a pupil of Malton’s, and Girtin of Dayes’s, but it happened that each studied for practice the works of the other’s teacher. Turner’s copies from Dayes were so nearly facsimiles, that they have deceived collectors, whereas Girtin’s drawings after Malton have his own colour and handling engrafted upon the light and shade of the original.’17 

‘Girtin’s drawings made for Mr. Henderson in or before 1793,’ says Pye,10 ‘are, as far as outlines go, three copies of Malton’s engraved views, the Mansion House, the Royal Exchange, and St. George’s Church. They are like Malton’s in form and perspective; but in nothing else. They are invested with new effects, being composed alike of colour and clair-obscur, and can only be justly appreciated by being seen. The subjects respectively are so changed that by being seen in new dresses beside the prints, they receive irresistibly the charm of fine art.’ There are also copies by Girtin from Canaletti, Piranesi, Hearne, Marlow, and Morland, in the same collection, which are impressed with like originality. At Mr. Henderson’s, Turner is said19 to have preferred copying from Hearne, while Girtin copied from Canaletti and Piranesi. The biographer of Girtin in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ tells us that Canaletti was the first master that struck his attention forcibly; and his earliest penchant appears to have been for architectural subjects of the kind treated by that painter. It might be added that the same feeling is manifested in the last work on which his dying hand was engaged – his series of views in Paris. He is also said to have derived much profit from a study of Wilson.20

In 1794, the year in which the life of Cozens virtually ended, Girtin had his first work at the Academy. It was a drawing of ‘Ely Minster.’ From that time till the year 1801, the last but one of his short life, he continued to exhibit annually except in the year 1796. He is said to have made a journey into Wales in 1794, but no Welsh subject is named among these until 1799, when he sends two views of ‘Bethkellert.’ Next year, 1795, he has two drawings, ‘Warwick Castle’ and ‘Peterborough Cathedral.’

We also hear less of Girtin than of Turner, as employed by architects. The latter is said21 to have been still engaged in 1796 in supplying their drawings with pictorial attraction. But Girtin, besides affording this aid to professional brethren, was beginning to be in request by amateurs. He found profitable occupation in giving them lessons,22 and their sketches were placed in his hands that he might put in the appropriate ‘effects.’

He was not a student of the Academy, but, as Pye observed,10 he does not appear to have been less conversant with the elements of art than Turner, who was an Academy student. For landscape art was not taught in the schools. Its rules had not been formulated, and its growing traditions were as yet possessed by a few practitioners only. Girtin’s taste and knowledge led to his employment in a capacity allied to that which had given experience to the pencils of Cozens and ‘Warwick’ Smith. He was taken, not into Italy, but, what was more conducive to the development of his natural style, into the mountainous and picturesque regions of his own country. He became the travelling companion of Mr. James Moore, F. S. A.,24 an antiquary and amateur topographer, to whose introduction to the scenery of Scotland and Yorkshire is attributed a change which now came over his manner of painting, and a sudden strengthening, in his hands, of the power of water-colour art. Inspired by the ‘dark and true and tender’ North, he ‘began to treat mountain and lake scenery in a manner very different from his predecessors,’ imitating the effects of ‘heavy overhanging clouds throwing the vast mass of a mountain which occupied the whole distance under a deep and solemn mass of gloom.’25 A ‘daring style of effect’ and a ‘grandeur and originality of conception in light and shadow,’ for which he was soon to become celebrated, arose, it is said, from a chance observation of the solemn change produced by twilight in a scene of buildings, bridge, and river in an ‘ancient town,’ whereof he had made a midday outline under the broad sun. Hence, acquiring ‘a habit of looking at Nature, clothed in her morning and her evening robe,’ he was afterwards enabled to ‘throw either garb over his own landscape compositions at his will.’26 He became ‘fond of contrasting cool shadows with warm and brilliant lights spread over the picturesque ruins in which he delighted, giving by these means an appearance of sunshine and a splendour of effect, startling to those who had been accustomed to the tamer manner of the topographers, or even to the poetical tenderness of the works of Cozens.’27

Girtin is said to have accompanied Mr. Moore to ‘Peterborough, Lichfield, Lincoln, and many other places remarkable for their rich scenery, either in nature or architecture;’28 and the subjects of his drawings, exhibited or engraved, show that he made sketches in various parts of England and Wales. It was probably in 1796 that he first went to Scotland. He had nothing at Somerset House that year, and nothing from his hand had been published in Walker’s magazine since May 1793. But he has no fewer than ten drawings in the Academy exhibition of 1797, two from Scotland, two from Northumberland, and six from York, besides an elaborate interior of St. Alban’s Church29 which shows that as an architectural draftsman he had already arrived at the maturity of his power.

In the ‘Copper Plate Magazine,’ volume iii., with various dates in 1797, there are ‘Warkworth,’ ‘Newcastle-upon-Tyne,’ and ‘Bamborough Castle,’ as well as ‘Marlow Bridge,’ by Girtin, and also the following plates from ‘Sketches by James Moore, Esq.,’ viz. ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Duff House, Bamffshire,’ ‘Exeter,’ ‘Elgin Cathedral,’ and ‘Jedburgh Abbey,’ in all of which, though Girtin’s name does not appear, there can be little doubt that he had a hand. But these prints of Walker’s do not enable us to form a judgment as to the quality of the original drawings.

He had by this time left his mother’s lodgings in St. Martin’s-le-Grand. In 1797 we find him at 35 Drury Lane. The next year he is at 25 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, and in 1799 at 6 Long Acre. Thus Girtin, young as he was (he attained his majority in 1796), became established as an artist of note, and, what was more to his professional advantage, as a favourite teacher of water-colour drawing.

As had been the case with Gainsborough, the manner of Girtin’s painting, broad in its generalization, and well adapted to express his conceptions in an abstract form, had in it some salient features which attracted a host of superficial imitators. An effective opposing of warm colours to cold, and dark tones to light, and a unity obtained by the sacrifice of detail and of natural variety, were all that constituted in their eyes the ‘style’ of Girtin. On the strength, in part at least, of their imitations, Girtin himself has been charged with affectation, and a tendency to degenerate into a mannerist26 or a chiqueur.31 Dayes, his old master, who was never cured of the grudge he bore his too clever pupil, declared that because ‘master Tom chose to wash in dirty water,’ his imitators not only washed in dirty water too, but ‘in the very puddle water which he had made more dirty.’ And when, shortly before Girtin’s death, a portfolio of crude works by a disciple of the school was placed before Dayes for approval, he persisted in holding them up to ridicule as the result of an application of ‘the blue bag.’32

It is not to be inferred, however, from the above remarks, that Girtin’s teaching was of a superficial character, or that he was ever likely to become a trickster, like Payne. He ‘did not,’ says his biographer Miller, ‘flatter amateurs, and pretend to teach them secrets for money.’ The Dowager Duchess of Sutherland (who in Girtin’s time was Lady Gower), one of many persons whom he taught in the higher ranks of society, used to say that ‘he told everything’ to his favourite pupil Lady Long,33 wife of Sir Charles Long, afterwards Lord Farnborough. ‘He would point out the time of the day, the cast shadows and particular effect suited to the time and scene &c. – a mode of teaching far in advance of the time.’34 

Nor did he confine the benefit of his instruction to the wealthy dilettante, who paid him so much a lesson. His painting-room was ever open to his brother artists, and he was always happy to give them the benefit of his advice and instruction. Indeed, he was often blamed by his friends for allowing them to stand over him while at work, that they might see how he produced his effects.35 

It is perhaps due to this open liberality of Girtin’s that writers have been able to describe his technical processes in considerable detail. The following account is extracted from the Somerset House Gazette.36 ‘Girtin made his drawings, with but few exceptions, on cartridge paper.37 He chose this material as his aim was to procure a bold and striking chiaroscuro, with splendour of colour, and without attention to detail.’ Then, beginning with the sky: ‘The azure spaces were washed with a mixture of indigo and lake, and the shadows of the clouds with light red and indigo, Indian red and indigo, and an occasional addition of lake. The warm tone of the cartridge paper frequently served for the lights without tinting, acquiring additional warmth by being opposed to the cool colour of the azure, and shadow of the clouds… . 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 thin 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, madder brown 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, Vandyck brown and Cologn-earth were combined with these tints, which gave depth and richness of tones, 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, 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 gambouge, indigo, and burnt sienna, occasionally heightened with yellow lake, brown pink, and gambouge, these mixed too sometimes with Prussian blue. The shadows for the trees, with indigo and burnt sienna, and with a most beautiful harmonious 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. Girtin made his greys sometimes with Venetian red and indigo, Indian red and indigo, and a useful and most harmonious series of warm and cool greys, of Roman ochre, indigo, and lake, which, used judiciously, will serve to represent the basis for every species of subject and effect, as viewed in the middle grounds under the influence of that painter’s atmosphere so prevalent in 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.’ ‘His palette,’ says Girtin’s biographer in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ ‘was covered with a greater variety of tints than almost any of his contemporaries.’

The Messrs. Redgrave38 declare that Girtin was the first who followed out a procedure the reverse of that which had hitherto prevailed – laying in the whole of his work with the true local colour of the various parts, and afterwards adding the shadows with their own local and individual tints. But they allege that this was only quite at the end of his career, and contend that in ‘his mode of execution he did not add much to the resources of art.’ They consider that in 1798 Turner was in advance of Girtin in the employment of executive processes.

It has further been said that Girtin was the discoverer of the mode of wiping out lights in water-colour painting; and that he made the discovery by an accident. The story is that ‘he spilt some drops of water upon a drawing, and, fearing that it would injure the part upon which it fell, took his handkerchief carefully to sop it up; when, the colour being softened by the moisture, it came away upon the handkerchief, leaving the exact shape of the spots of water white. It struck him that this plan of getting out lights might be applied in the progress of a drawing, and he used it with so much success that for several seasons his works attracted particular attention in this respect. It was supposed that, instead of being taken out after the picture was advanced, they were stopped out in the commencement; and the colourmen got up a preparation which they sold under the name of “Girtin’s Stopping-out Mixture.”’39 Such a method has, indeed, been employed by several artists.

According to Pyne, the process of ‘taking out the lights with bread’ was ‘a discovery which originated with Turner,’ whose ‘magnificent effects, aided by this process, were first exhibited at the Royal Academy,’ when ‘all the painters were puzzled to find out by what art he performed this graphic magic.’40 

Mr. Jenkins contends that ‘the best evidence is in favour of Turner’s being the discoverer of some mode of getting out lights.’ He was unable to detect in Girtin’s drawings any evidence of his having adopted the practice. That painter, he says, ‘occasionally used some kind of white, as upon a large drawing of the Interior of Exeter Cathedral, belonging to Miss Miller, not only upon the highest lights, but mixed with colour in touches upon the screen.’

But there was a third artist in whose behalf a claim to the honour of the invention might be put in with perhaps equal plausibility. This was the Yorkshire painter, Francis Nicholson, above mentioned. Nicholson, like all true masters of our water-colour school, relied entirely upon transparent pigment for the richness and strength of his drawings. And Pyne illustrates the fact by the following anecdote, which he puts into the mouth of an informant, whom he represents as ‘no mean performer himself,’ of a visit to the Earl of Warwick’s collection. ‘On looking over his portfolios, containing the works of Sandby, Rooker, Cozens, Warwick Smith, and others of the water-colour school,’ says the informant, ‘I was struck with some clever pieces, scenes in Ireland, executed in body-colours by Walmsley, one of the scene-painters at Covent Garden Theatre. The subjects were highly picturesque, representing rocks and waterfalls, his Lordship’s favourite studies. “What think you of these?” says my Lord. “I admire them much, sir,” answers the professor. “The rocks are boldly designed; but what I most admire is the water, rolling so turbulently over its rocky bed. There is the advantage of body-colours, my Lord. You can put on the lights; now, in transparent water-colours, you must leave the lights; hence you never can represent such scenes with clearness, force, and spirit united. There rests one of the insurmountable difficulties of that species of art, touching the means for the faithful imitation of nature.” “Now, sir,” replies Lord Warwick, “this is what I expected. Every connoisseur, nay almost every artist, has made the same remarks. But, sir, I will surprise you; and that, I trust, most agreeably.” His Lordship then takes from his portfolio two large drawings, scenes in North Wales, of subjects similar to those of Walmsley’s. “Marvellous!” exclaims the critic. “Is it possible? Can these be done in transparent water-colours?” “Yes, sir.” “By whom, my Lord?” “By Francis Nicholson, a provincial artist, living in the neighbourhood of York”. “I never heard his name, my Lord, till now, but … he will soon be détterré. Such a genius must be one of us. The metropolis is his sphere.”’41 Nicholson fulfilled the prediction, and was afterwards long and profitably settled in London among his confrères of the brush.

The suggestive nature of Girtin’s drawings, so characteristic of a true sketch, so different from mere imitation, laid them open to a charge of incompleteness. Dayes, in a short, unkind paragraph, written after his pupil’s death, declares that they were ‘generally too slight,’ though he admits them to be ‘the offspring of a strong imagination.’ Pyne tells us42 that ‘Girtin is supposed to have been tempted to work with less regard to correctness of form, in proportion to the ease with which he produced richness of colour, on the cartridge paper, compared with the labour of executing on white paper, and to have become at last so enamoured with colouring and effect, as to consider drawing of little consequence to the general character of a picture,’ which ‘slovenly aberrations of genius’ produced a bad effect upon art through the imitations of admiring dilettanti.

But others who knew him said that he was indefatigable in his profession, and equally painstaking in the field and in the studio, his devotion to art being unbounded. When sketching from nature, he would expose himself to all weathers, sitting out for hours in the rain to observe the effect of storms and clouds upon the atmosphere. Death itself was believed to have been hastened by a cold he caught while painting in the damp air.43 He ‘usually,’ says the biographer in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ ‘finished the greater part of his drawing on the spot,’ and ‘when he had made a sketch at any place, he never wished to quit it until he had given it all the proper tints.’ But one of his modes of study on the Thames, he being a great lover of river scenery, was to be carried up and down on a barge, sketching as it floated along.44 In Miller’s Turner and Girtin’s Picturesque Views there is a woodcut tailpiece representing Girtin sketching from nature. He sits upon a three-legged folding-stool in an easy attitude, his body thrown back and his feet forward. He wears Hessian boots and a tall beaver hat, and seems to be drawing with a pencil on a bit of paper folded loosely as one would turn back, in reading it, the pages of a pamphlet. This paper he holds in his left hand, which rests upon his knee. The place may be in a park, or by the Thames. There is at the back a piece of water with a swan upon it.

As to his studio work, ‘one who had frequently watched his progress tells us,’ say Messrs. Redgrave, ‘that his finely coloured compositions were wrought with much study, and proportionate manual exertion, and that though he did not hesitate, nor undo what he had once done, for he worked on principle, yet he reiterated his tints to produce splendour and richness, and repeated his depths to secure transparency of tones, with surprising perseverance.’45 He is also said to have destroyed a vast number of drawings; for if he made a mistake in any of the tints, he would throw the drawing away. Glover, it seems, did the same.46 Mr. Jenkins remarks that ‘no greater proof could be advanced of the extreme timidity with which the early water-colour draftsmen worked. Being unaware of the modes since adopted of taking out unsatisfactory parts of a drawing, they considered the whole spoiled if they did not ‘hit upon the tints at once.’ This limitation of means may, however, have had the salutary effect of enforcing reliance on mastery of hand, instead of inducing dependence on remedial processes.

Besides the employment he received as a teacher, Girtin was encouraged by the favour of many noble and wealthy patrons, who not only threw open to him their houses and collections of art treasures, but gave work to his pencil. To the names already mentioned are to be added those of Sir George Beaumont; Mr. Lascelles,47 who noticed him early and gave him the use of his collection; the Hon. Spencer Cowper, ‘who had the largest and finest collection of Girtin’s drawings of any gentleman of that day;’48 Lord Hardwicke; the Earl of Mulgrave; General Phipps; the Earl of Buchan; and, most hospitable of all, the Earl of Harewood, who was not only one of his earlier patrons, giving him the advantage of his society and of his picture gallery to form his taste by, but who had a room kept for him at Harewood House, where he lived for long periods together, and made some of his most important drawings.49




Harris the dealer – Girtin’s Sketching Society – Its rules and members – Francia – His career – Cotman – As ‘Thaddeus of Warsaw’ – Old artist quarters – Barker – Panoramas – Sir R. K. Porter – Battle-pieces – Girtin’s view of London – What has become of it? – Turner takes to oils – Becomes A. R. A.

WHILE in the enjoyment of all this direct patronage, and thus, one would think, above the necessity of paying his court to the dealers, it seems curious that Girtin should have been rather inclined to sell his works through their medium than at once to persons who wished to possess them. But such is said to have been the fact,50 and that many of his drawings passed through the hands of one Harris, a frame-maker of Gerrard Street, Soho, who seems to have found his interest in gathering around him some of the choice spirits of the artist fraternity, in whom the Bohemian element was not wanting.

It is quite possible that Girtin, with his sociable nature, may have enjoyed a chat at ‘Jack Harris’s tavern club’ even, as alleged, with ‘that wild reprobate Morland,’50 but it is more agreeable to picture him as the centre of a social réunion of a much more refined description, in which he certainly took part. To him has been assigned the credit of having been the first to form one of the many pleasant sketching coteries which have existed among artists and amateurs from his time to the present. It is not improbable that with him the idea originated of a sociable evening meeting, once a month or so, of friends of artistic proclivities, and more or less brothers of the brush, to indulge their fancy and their taste in a couple of hours’ sketching, illustrating in friendly rivalry a given subject; and, likely enough, it was suggested by the recollection of his own profitable evenings in Adelphi Terrace. There have been larger and more distinguished societies of the same kind, but we hear of none of earlier date than that established by Girtin and his comrades a year or two before the close of the eighteenth century.

An interesting minute of the first meeting of the society is preserved at the South Kensington Museum on the back of a drawing in the water-colour collection there, entitled ‘A landscape composition; Moonlight,’ on which are inscribed the following words and figures: ‘This drawing was made on Monday, May the 20th, 1799, at the room of Robert Ker Porter of No. 16 Great Newport Street, Leicester Square, in the very painting room that formerly was Sir Joshua Reynolds’s and since has been Dr. Samuel Johnson’s; and for the first time on the above day convened, a small and select Society of Young Painters under the title (as I give it) of the Brothers met for the purpose of establishing by practice a school of Historic Landscape, the subjects being original designs from poetick passages;       L s. FRANCIA.

The Society consists of


J. C. Denham, Treasr,

Rt Kr Porter,

Ts Girtin,

Ts Underwood,

Ge Samuel,

& Ls Francia, Secrety.’

The above minute seems to mean that it was Francia, not Girtin, who actually founded the Society.

This FRANÇOIS LOUIS THOMAS FRANCIA, which appears to be his full name, though he is generally known as ‘Louis Francia’ simply, was one of Girtin’s fellow-students at Dr. Monro’s. He was a Frenchman, believed to have been born at Calais in 1772,52 and therefore a little older than Girtin. He is chiefly known in bold, moving sea-pieces, but he painted on shore also, and with a power, and an eye for broadly massed composition and mellowness of colour, so suggestive of Girtin as to have led to his works being sometimes attributed to that master himself. Among some manuscript notes referring to the time we are considering, or a few years earlier, which were furnished to Mr. Jenkins by J. P. Neale, the topographic draftsman, who was four years older than Girtin, there is a casual reference to Francia, as an assistant at a drawing-school in Furnival’s Inn Court, Holborn, kept by one J. C. Barrow, where John Varley was also employed. The writer describes him as ‘a conceited French refugee, who used to amuse the party with his blundering absurdities.’ In the list of subscribers to ‘The Works of the late Edward Dayes,’ 8vo [octavo], 1805, is ‘Lewis Francia, Drawing Master, 5 Lower Phillimore Place, Kensington.’ Graves notes eighty-five landscapes exhibited by Francia at the Royal Academy between 1795 and 1821. He is also said to have made many drawings for, and as ‘painter in water-colours to,’ the Duchess of York. And he published the following books of prints: ‘Studies of Landscapes imitated from the originals by L. Francia, 1810,’ apparently soft-ground etchings, some designed by himself being excellent suggestions of landscape composition; and four ‘Marine Studies by L. Francia, 1822.’ Published by Rodwell and Martin, New Bond Street. Price 2s. in ‘C. Hullmandel’s Lithography,’ with a vignette title. All these are very slight sketches, probably for students to copy. Francia is further mentioned by Redgrave as ‘a member and for a time secretary of the Water-Colour Society.’ But the body referred to is not the Society whose history these pages are intended specially to record. It was a rival association of which some account will be given in the sequel. According to the same biographer this artist died on the 6th of February 1839, at his native Calais, whither he had returned in 1817, having failed in the preceding year to gain admission to the ranks of the Royal Academy.53

Messrs. Worthington and J. C. Denham appear to have been amateurs. The first was probably Mr. Thomas Worthington, described54 as ‘a very skilful performer’ with the brush, who ‘had profited much by’ lessons which he for some time received from Girtin. He lived at Halliford on the Thames, and had a collection of that painter’s drawings.

Robert Ker Porter was a rising artist a few years younger than Girtin, addicted to the big brush, who had already composed ‘historical’ pictures of ambitious magnitude.

Thomas Underwood55 seems to have been a half amateur water-colour painter who studied at Dr. Monro’s, and George Samuel an esteemed landscape painter, chiefly in water-colours, who exhibited at the Academy from 1786 to 1823, and had made a hit by a view of the frozen Thames in 1789.

The following were the ways of this little club, which forms the model on which the simple rules of later sketching societies have usually been framed. They met alternately at each other’s houses. The subject was generally taken from an English poet, and was treated by each in his own way. The member at whose house they met supplied strained paper, colours, and pencils, and all the sketches of the evening became his property. They met at six o’clock and had tea or coffee, worked till ten, and, after a plain supper, separated at midnight.56 

Thornbury tells us that the members were ten in number, adding to the seven names recorded by Francia, three more, which, if correctly given, would be Augustus Wall Callcott, P. S. Murray, and John Sell Cotman.57 Callcott, like Ker Porter, was afterwards knighted, when he became a distinguished painter and a Royal Academician. Like him also, he had seen a few less summers than Thomas Girtin. At this time young Callcott was gradually deserting the sister art of music to try his hand at portraiture, his true bent of landscape not having yet declared itself. It is more than possible that his evening amusement in Tom Girtin’s genial company had something to do with its recognition. Murray was, it is believed, one more amateur. But the third additional name demands a fuller notice. He was another of Dr. Monro’s clients, and one of the many who became distinguished as a professional artist in after life.

JOHN SELL COTMAN was also Girtin’s junior, and must have been one of the youngest members of the sketching club. In a yet distant chapter he will have to be dealt with as an Associate of the Water-Colour Society. At the time now referred to, he was a struggling student, who had just shaken himself free of the paternal draper’s shop life at Norwich, under an artistic impulse not to be controlled.

Some of his early adventures in London, while trying to live by his pencil, have been recorded, doubtless with some embellishment, by a once well-known pen. Ker Porter used, not unfrequently, to bring his sister Jane to the meetings of the sketching club, whereat she was sometimes permitted to select themes for the evening’s drawings.58 It is said that Cotman related to her these incidents of his life, and that she afterwards embodied them in that of the hero of her first romance, Thaddeus of Warsaw, published in 1803.59 There she relates how Thaddeus (an imaginary descendant of Sobieski, whose character she based on that of Kosciuszko60), being an exile in England after the subjugation of Poland, and finding himself penniless, had recourse to drawing in order to raise the needful. For ‘Thaddeus of Warsaw’ read ‘Cotman of Norwich,’ and the story is his, though the aristocratic traits of character introduced are far from being appropriate. ‘He found,’ writes the novelist, ‘that his sole dependence must rest on his talents for painting. Of this art he had always been remarkably fond; and his taste easily perceived that there were many drawings exhibited for sale much inferior to those which he had executed for mere amusement. He decided at once; and purchasing … pencils and Indian ink, he set to work.’ With these materials he executes half a dozen drawings, ‘recollections of scenes in Germany,’ and takes them to a print-shop in Great Newport Street61 where a dealer, declaring such things to be mere drugs, offers him a guinea for the six, but so offends his dignity by calling him a ‘conceited dauber,’ that he walks off in high dudgeon with the roll of drawings under his arm. Reduced to greater necessity, he afterwards goes again to the same street, and offers the drawings for a guinea at another shop there, where a more conscientious dealer not only buys them at once, but requests him to furnish six more every week. How much of the experiences of the imaginary Count Sobieski are to be placed to the credit of this excellent painter of the Norwich school, it is impossible to say, but there is at any rate some historic reality in the scene wherein the authoress lays this portion of her plot. Her pages take us back to the little artists’ quarter about Leicester Square and Covent Garden, as it existed in the days of her own young-lady-hood, where the Porters and Girtin and many of their painter friends lived during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

It is still possible to trace some of their familiar haunts; but the district has been carved up for wider streets; old sites are overlaid with model lodging houses, new theatres and music-halls, bigger shops, art galleries, and co-operative stores; and its former outlines are almost blotted out. Even the name ‘Trafalgar Square’ would have had no meaning in the days here spoken of. The year 1794, during the hard winter whereof Miss Porter brings her noble refugee to the Hummums in Covent Garden, was known in naval annals by an earlier triumph than Nelson’s, that of Admiral Lord Howe, on its ‘glorious First of June.’ ‘St. Martin’s noble church,’ she says, ‘was then the centre of the east side of a long, narrow, and somewhat dirty lane of mean houses, particularly in the end below the church. Charing Cross with its adjoining streets showed nothing better than plain tradesmen’s shops; and it was not until we saw the Admiralty and entered the Horse Guards that anything presented itself worthy of the great name of London.’62

In 1798 Girtin was living, as before stated, at 25 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. Close by, on the south, between that street and Maiden Lane, lay Hand Court, where Turner lurked within his modest studio. Porter had removed from Bedford Street (No. 38), where he was in 1794, just round the corner westward, to 16 Newport Street, the very street in which Cotman (or Count Sobieski) found the first market for his drawings. It is a dirty little back street now (if indeed it exists at all), nearly lost among new buildings, but at that time it formed part of the nearest coachway from Lincoln’s Inn to Piccadilly. Somewhat further on is Lisle Street, where, at the large house fronting Leicester Street, Leicester Square, had been exhibited, in 1781, the Eidophusikon of Loutherbourg; and to the north whereof is Gerrard Street, haunted with the shades of Jack Harris and the literary and artistic frequenters of the old ‘Turk’s Head.’ The Cranbourn Street (or ‘Alley’) where Hogarth served his apprenticeship to a silversmith’s engraver, had not yet, nor long after, given place to the thoroughfare which now bears that name; and Garrick Street is of still more recent date. The direct communication between Covent Garden and Leicester Square was by footways through a labyrinth of paved courts, some of which still exist. West-ward of, and not quite in a line with Great Newport Street, lies (or lay) Little Newport Street; and there, at No. 1, resided at one time (possibly at this) our painter’s younger brother John, who carried on business as a letter and heraldic engraver, and was employed in that capacity as assistant at the Bank of England. From the point of junction of the two Newport Streets, there still runs, or very lately ran, northward, a small street called Porter Street (whether named or not from the family above mentioned, this deponent cannot say), and southward, parallel to St. Martin’s Lane, and between it and Leicester Square, one out of many streets in central London called Castle Street. Formerly it extended to Charing Cross, but it is now curtailed by the National Gallery.63 On the west side of Castle Street lived John Hunter, the great comparative anatomist; and nearly opposite, at No. 28, another of the little circle of artist friends in which Tom Girtin moved.

This was HENRY ASTON BARKER, a painter without mention of whose name and life’s work no complete account can be given of the development of that topographic art upon which our water-colour school was originally based, and which in the days of its earlier maturity still constituted its main support. His father, Robert Barker, has the credit of inventing, as well as founding, in 1793, the popular exhibition in the north-east corner of Leicester Square, well remembered as one of the delights of their youth by elders of the living generation, under the name of ‘the Panorama.’

The succession of these wondrous cylindric views, in the centre whereof the spectator stood, as one transported, by a genius of Araby, into some distant land, or seemed encompassed by the reality of a scene which he had already striven in vain to visualize in his mind’s eye, was for a long series of years an equal source of pleasure and profitable instruction to countless persons of all ages.

Although, as already mentioned, the idea of a continuous picture, including the whole circle of the horizon, is said to have occurred to Sir George Beaumont when he saw Barret’s wall-decorations at Norbury Park, and to have even been put by him to an experimental test, it was to Robert Barker, who conceived a similar idea independently, that the public were eventually indebted for this interesting kind of exhibition. But his younger son, Henry Aston Barker, was his principal assistant in the execution of the scheme. It was he who went out sketching, at home and abroad, and virtually he who designed all the earlier panoramic views.

Young Barker was not more than a year older than Girtin. He had come to London from Scotland in or shortly before 1789, with his father (an Irishman of county Meath), and they brought with them a view, representing Edinburgh from Calton Hill, with Holyrood House in the foreground. It had already been exhibited in that city and in Glasgow, and had excited much interest as a proof that it was possible to depict a portion of a scene embracing more than sixty degrees of the horizon. It was not, indeed, a complete panorama in the true sense of the word, for it included no more than one-half of the entire circle; but all the difficulties of perspective had been surmounted. The sketches for this picture had been made by Henry Aston Barker, then a lad of about fourteen; and his father, who had invented a mechanical system of perspective, and taught that art in Edinburgh, had pieced the sketches together and adapted them to a concave surface. Mr. Barker met with liberal encouragement from a Scotch nobleman (believed to have been Lord Elcho, son of the Earl of Wemyss), and, on coming to London, was thereby enabled to exhibit this picture in a large room at No. 28 Haymarket.

He placed his son Henry in the schools of the Royal Academy, where he and Turner and Robert Ker Porter64 are said to have been ‘great companions and confederates in boyish mischief.’ Henry Barker is moreover reported to have had a boyish attachment to his friend Porter’s lively and romantic sister, Miss Jane, the authoress above quoted. But Barker was also fond of work. He was an early riser like Turner, and used to emulate the industry of John Hunter,65 over the way, in Castle Street. Get up, however, as early as he would, there the first thing he always saw was the great anatomist, poring over his preparations.

The success of their ‘Edinburgh’ induced the Barkers to execute another painting of the kind in London, and this time to creep round another quarter of the circle. For this, Henry Barker made a number of drawings66 from the top of the Albion Mills, a lofty structure at the eastern corner of the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge.67 When finished, this three-quarter circle picture was exhibited in 1792, in a rough building, apparently not erected for the purpose, at the back of Barker’s house in Castle Street, and ‘abutting on the Apollonicon Rooms’ in St. Martin’s Lane. Sir Joshua Reynolds went to see the picture there, and praised it highly.68 It only remained to complete the whole circumference of the horizon; but for that it was necessary to have a cylindrical room specially adapted to the purpose. This was effected in the following year, when the house in Leicester Square, with its two circles (to which a third was added long afterwards), was erected by subscription, from the designs of Robert Mitchell, of Newman Street,69 and opened, by Robert Barker, under the name, then first adopted, of IIANΩPAMA. The pictures of Edinburgh and London had been executed in distemper; but the paintings here were in oil. On the death of his father, in 1806, Henry Barker carried on the concern. He afterwards went to live in West Square, St George’s Fields, Southwark, where he painted his panorama pictures in a wooden rotunda. He also travelled much about the world, making sketches for them. He died in 1856.70

These comprehensive landscapes of their friend Barker’s seem to have raised in the hearts both of Porter and Girtin a desire to execute works of a similar kind. The former, some years later, applied the plan to ‘historical’ painting, and exhibited at the Lyceum71 three large battle-pieces, the first (in 1799) representing the storming of Seringapatam, which was followed by the siege of Acre, and (in 1801) the battle of Alexandria. These were carried round three quarters of the circle. Another was the battle of Agincourt.

Battle-pieces have always been favourite subjects with the painters of panoramas. Barker’s invention was introduced into Paris, where a panorama, in a building erected by the American engineer Robert Fulton (the inventor of the steamboat) was opened in 1779 with a view of the Place de la Concorde. Other views of the kind having proved very attractive in that city, the Emperor Napoleon attempted, as a means of making himself popular, to establish panoramas in every quarter, exhibiting the victories of the French armies, and he ‘gave orders to his architect, Cellerier, to draw out the plans of seven panoramas to be erected in the then open space now filled up by the Palais de l’Industrie, but the military events of 1812 turned his attention from the design.’72 Even Barker’s panorama in Leicester Square opened with a view of the ‘Grand Fleet at Spithead.’ This kind of exhibition has been revived in recent years in Paris and in London, and the pictures have again been in most cases representations of scenes in modern warfare, a noteworthy exception being that of Niagara, now exhibiting at Westminster, which gives an adequate idea of what the old cylindrical pictures were.

Girtin’s so-called ‘panorama’ was of the peaceful order. It was one of ‘London,’ said to have been painted in his twenty-third year,73 that is, in 1797–8, and so nearly the same in subject and other circumstances as Barker’s, that much confusion has arisen between them. Like his, it was taken from the Surrey side of the river and the foot of Blackfriars Bridge, from the top either of the Albion Mills, or (according to another account)74 Sir Ashton Leaver’s Museum. Its horizon is said to have been semicircular. We are not told what its size was. It must, however, have had a very real look, and have contained figures; for a writer in Notes and Queries75 says of it: ‘I remember when a boy going to see that panorama. I was struck with the baker knocking at the door in Albion Place, and wondered the man did not move.’ In one of these views of London (it is not clear whether Girtin’s or Barker’s) there was represented on the Thames the Lord Mayor’s procession by water to Westminster, which used then to take place on the 9th of November. As there is no such incident in Barker and Birnie’s prints, though boats are there introduced on the river, the probability is that it was Girtin who made a feature of the City barges.

Girtin’s ‘London’ was exhibited in Spring Gardens, and on view there at the time of his death.76 After that event it appears to have lain rolled up in a loft over a carpenter’s shop in St. Martin’s Lane (Thornbury says, at an architect’s named Howitt), and ‘about the year 1825’ to have been sold by the second husband77 of Girtin’s widow, one Mr. Cohen, to ‘some persons in Russia,’ or to ‘a Russian nobleman,’ who carried it off to that country. According to one statement,78 it was exhibited in St. Petersburg. The picture itself may turn up again, some fine day; but in the mean time there are materials from which a fair conjecture may be made as to what it is, or was, like. The outline of the work is79 in the possession of Miss Miller; and several of the original studies for it, ‘very admirably drawn and painted,’34 are in the collection of Girtin’s drawings formed by the late Mr. Chambers Hall, and now in the British Museum.

It has been stated that Girtin’s ‘panorama’ was executed in oil. But an examination of these studies, when in Mr. Hall’s possession, led Mr. Jenkins to doubt the correctness of this assertion. They are, he writes, ‘splashed with colour, which Mr. Hall stated to be distemper. They have all the appearance of having been soiled while being used in the progress of painting the panorama. This circumstance’ he regards as throwing ‘some doubt upon’ the above statement, ‘and taken in conjunction with the fact that Girtin painted some scenes for a pantomime at Covent Garden and consequently must have been acquainted with the use of distemper’ leads him to consider it ‘probable that the panorama was also executed in that material,’ the quality of which is, in that writer’s opinion, ‘so much better suited for the purpose than the glare of oil.’

Girtin did, it is true, at the latter end of his life, paint a few, but very few, pictures in oil, besides the doubtful panorama. His son told Mr. Jenkins that there were only two, and Miss Hog, an intimate friend of the painter’s wife, further said that two large views by him of Harewood House were in oil. But the last picture he exhibited, namely ‘Bolton Bridge, Yorkshire,’ at the Royal Academy in 1801, was in that medium. It was much noticed at the time,81 and is mentioned in Mr. Redford’s List of Art Sales, as having been sold in 1803, for 25l. 4s. It is possible, as has been alleged, that Girtin painted these oil-pictures with a view of gaining admission to the Royal Academy, where the claims of water-colour draftsmen to be regarded as ‘painters’ were not recognized.

His early companion and fellow-student, Turner, though still supporting himself by making topographic drawings, and at the same time continuing to develop the resources of water-colour art, had for some years past been exhibiting oil-pictures as the means by which he hoped to achieve fame as a great artist. This ambition was doomed to be for a long time bitterly disappointed; but he at least obtained by them his admission to the Academy, as an Associate, in 1799; in which year he set up his studio in a more genteel quarter, at 64 Harley Street, and left for ever the old historic neighbourhood about Covent Garden.



Girtin’s marriage – Moves to St. George’s Row – Studio frequented – Playful letters – Fatal illness – Goes to France – His Paris sketches – Etched and aquatinted – Originals at Woburn – Pantomime scenes – Barker in Paris – Girtin’s death and burial – His private character – Aspersed by Dayes – Defended by family – Contrasted with Turner’s.

THE time was near at hand for Girtin, too, to make a westward move. On the 16th of October, 1800, he took to himself a wife. His bride was Miss Mary Ann Borrett, only daughter of Phineas Borrett, an eminent goldsmith of good property, and a liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company, who resided at No. 11 Scott’s Place, Islington. They were married by license at the church of St. George’s, Hanover Square. The entry in the parish register states that the bride was a minor, and that the marriage was ‘with consent of her father,’ who together with ‘Ann Borrett’ sign their names as witnesses of the ceremony. The ‘happy pair’ went to reside at St. George’s Row,82 only a few doors from old Paul Sandby’s.

That veteran painter was now about seventy-five. During the whole of Girtin’s life he had been living there; and there he was to live on until seven years after Girtin’s death, when he died also. He had a studio at the back, abutting on the burial ground behind, where his body is interred.83 But the day of Sandby’s art was at length gone by. There was a greater attraction than any he could now offer, in the sight of our lively and dashing young painter at his work in the studio close at hand. Girtin’s house was the resort of many persons of distinction in society, and all who came were shown up into the painting-room. Here, surrounded by callers, the artist would go on with his work, chatting and telling anecdotes at the same time; liberal, as on all occasions, of his knowledge of art. Lady Gower, and doubtless Lady Long, were frequent visitors. The young man’s father-in-law, with a closer eye than his to business, was inclined to complain of the professional imprudence of permitting artists so frequently to see him paint but Girtin’s art was not of the kind that is fabricated in studios.

He still made long visits to the country, and spent much of his time at Lord Essex’s and Lord Harewood’s. During absence from home he used to write pretty and playful letters to his wife and her mother, often in an easy kind of verse, and very witty and amusing. He put scraps of poetry, too, under his drawings. These letters his widow unfortunately destroyed, burning them by mistake, with a box of others, at the time of her second marriage.

All this happy life was soon, however, to come to an end; for a fatal illness, which terminated Girtin’s short career, had begun to develop rapidly. Whether or not he was, as it has been reported, afflicted with asthma or consumption, the disease which finally caused his death is believed to have been ossification of the heart. His health had visibly been failing since the year before his marriage; and in 1801 his condition became so alarming that a change of climate was deemed necessary. Lord Harewood, writing to him on the 27th of June, about some drawings which he had been making of Harewood, says: ‘I received your letter this morning, and am sorry to hear that you are under the necessity of going to another climate for the benefit of your health.’ He was advised to try the Cape of Good Hope or Madeira; but his illness gaining upon him, many of his friends persuaded him not to go so far away, and he went no farther than Paris.

For this an opportunity now offered itself. The preliminaries of the Peace of Amiens were signed on the 1st of October, 1801, and that occasion of a visit to the Continent, which had been closed during the time of war, was embraced by him, as it was by so many of his countrymen. At first, however, it required considerable interest to be allowed to go to Paris, particularly in the case of English artists.

This was exerted on Girtin’s behalf by one of his numerous friends and patrons, the above-mentioned Sir Charles Long, who was at that time Under Secretary of State.

The following letter, however, dated ‘October 17th, 1801,’ seems to show that he did not even then contemplate leaving England: ‘To Mr. Harrison at Aldn Boydells. Friend Harrison, – I am so very ill that I am advised to go into the country for a little while. I shall desire a person to call upon you if in case you should have occasion for anything who will attend to my business during my absence. If you will have the goodness to send what orders you may want to my mother Mrs. Vaughan,84 Duke Street, Little Britain, she will take care to let the person know. I’m sorry to hear you have been ill. I hope your better. Yours respectfully,


Drury Lane 56.’85

Girtin went to Paris in November of the same year, 1801, his brother John, it is said, lending him 100l. for the purpose. There was inducement enough to visit the French capital at this time, without the excuse of ill health. He derived, indeed, no bodily benefit from the change; on the contrary, he was found to be much worse when he returned home. While in Paris, however, as well as in one or two of the towns he passed through,47 ‘he executed a large number of sketches, which for boldness betokened no decay of power,’ and are reckoned as in some respects his best works. For convenience, and possibly in prudence also, as the Parisians were said to be jealous of sketching, particularly by foreigners, he took all the views which he made during his residence in Paris, from the windows of a carriage which he engaged for his daily drives. In this fashion ‘he recorded,’ says Pye, ‘in a number of sketches the first impressions of his mind on seeing the great features of that remarkable city.’87 But he found himself lonely and solitary in Paris; and no wonder. He had had to go alone, for his young wife was within a month of her confinement. She went to stay with her parents at Islington, and their child was born on the 10th of December, during the father’s absence abroad. His health still declining, Girtin returned to England in May 1802. He had then but six months to live; and these he employed in making for Lord Essex a series of drawings from his Paris sketches, and putting the subjects into a form suitable for reproduction through the press.

The views were drawn in outline, and etched on soft ground by Girtin himself. A set of impressions were taken from the plates, and upon these he put in the effects in colour, and so converted them into the drawings for the aquatint engravers. The drawings, twenty in number, were purchased from the artist by the Earl of Essex, and were in that nobleman’s possession when the work was published. His Lordship afterwards presented them to the Duke of Bedford.88 Besides so preparing this selection of his sketches for publication, the artist painted two of them on a large scale as scenes for Covent Garden Theatre. One was a view of the Conciergerie for a pantomime by Thomas Dibdin (writer of the celebrated ‘Mother Goose’, of Grimaldi’s palmy days), and the other was the Rue St. Denis.89 During the Peace of Amiens, Henry Barker also went to Paris, and drew a panorama of that city. It is remarkable that the two artists should thus for a second time have been engaged in tasks so similar.

Poor Girtin never went back with his wife to their bright dwelling in Hyde Park. During this last sad period of his life they resided at her father’s house in Islington; and he had painting-rooms at one Norman’s, a frame-maker’s in the Strand, where he worked on till the pencil literally dropped from his weakened grasp. There was still an idea of sending him abroad, in the vain hope of restoring his health; as appears from the following letter from Sir George Beaumont, referring apparently to the projected publication of the Paris views: ‘Dear Sir, – I have just received your letter at this place. The pleasure I feel at your successful labours is much alloyed by the indifferent account you give of your health. You must take care of yourself, and I hope you will be enabled so to settle your concerns that you may pass the winter in Madeira. You will there find ample materials for your pencil, and the air is the most salubrious, in the world. I have no doubt but you will secure good impressions for me; and if you will send me a line to let me know you receive this, I will return you a note for the money. If you write by the return of the post, I shall receive it here, otherwise direct to me at W. Aston, Woodstock. Lady Beaumont joins with me in best wishes for your success, and the return of your health. I am, dear Sir, your sincere well wisher, G. W. BEAUMONT. – Cheltenham, Octr. 25th, 1802, or at Oldfield Bowles, Esqre., W. Aston, Woodstock.’

But Girtin had set out on a longer journey. He could not wait to select artists’ proofs for his friend and patron. A fortnight after, when his wife was with him one night in the studio, he died. It was the 9th of November, Lord Mayor’s day. The crowd, that had come out to view the City pageant, swept by under the now darkened window; and admiring visitors to the show-room in Spring Gardens had to be told next day that the hand which made that pageant live again in the view they had come to gaze on, would wield a brush no more.

The loss which had been sustained by Girtin’s death was testified by a group of patrons and admirers who followed his remains to the grave. Among them were the artists Sir William Becchey, Sir George Beaumont, Hearne, Edridge, and Turner. He was buried in the old familiar quarter; in the churchyard of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, on the south side of the burial ground to the left of the paved path to Bedford Street. In 1803 by whom it is not known, some say by Turner a neat monumental stone was erected there, with the inscription, ‘Sacred to the memory of Thomas Girtin, Artist, who departed this life Nov. the 9th, 1802, aged 27 years.’ It is gone now, and Miller90 says that the grave, ‘just beyond the second tree,’ is marked by ‘a flat stone, which bears neither name nor date.’ But he prints a woodcut of a stone fragment, with an urn and festoons upon it carved over the above words. ‘This,’ he says, ‘was once propped up near the grave.’ It looks like part of an upright headstone, and its design does not seem to support his theory that it originally lay, like the present stone, flat upon the ground.

It is just to add a few words respecting Girtin’s private character, on which some cruel aspersions were cast in a short notice of him written by his jealous master, Edward Dayes, and published in 1805 in a posthumous series of Professional Sketches of Modern Artists, which the author had left in manuscript. They have been repeated by other writers91 on, apparently, no better foundation. After duly warning young persons not to ‘suffer their passions to overpower their reason’ so as to ‘destroy existence,’ and ending his moral reflections with the back-handed compliment to his too clever pupil, ‘Had he not trifled away a vigorous constitution he might have arrived at a very high degree of excellence as a landscape painter,’ poor Dayes, with the irony of fate, laid violent hands on himself, and put an end to his own life.

Inferences to support this charge of intemperance, and that Girtin’s death was hastened by excess, have been drawn from his associating with George Morland. Assuming it to be true, however, as stated, that these two painters once made a voyage together in a collier, and that Girtin supped not unfrequently with Harris the dealer, where Morland supped also, it is not a necessary deduction that he was a partaker of Morland’s vices. They were not ‘boys together;’ for Morland was twelve years older than Girtin. That Girtin appreciated Morland’s genius may indeed be inferred from an anecdote related by Dawe, who tells us92 that a print of the latter artist’s ‘Mail Coach in a Storm’ was ‘highly admired by Girtin, who, having been requested to make a companion to it, after studying it for some time, threw down his pencil, exclaiming that he could do nothing like it.’93 But neither of Morland’s biographers, Dawe or Collins, even mentions a companionship between them. The acquaintance may possibly have been made through John Raphael Smith (older still by another eleven years), under whom, as we know, Girtin used to colour prints. Smith was a sporting buck, but a kind and generous man notwithstanding. The ‘Morland Gallery’ was one of his best speculations.

The alleged dissipation was wholly denied by Girtin’s family and their friends, and their story of the sea voyage bears a purely innocent aspect. It was that Girtin once made an excursion to Scotland in company with George Morland, that they performed their passage by sea, and, in order to observe character and sketch the sailors, took up their position in the men’s cabin. This love of the picturesque was converted by the detractors of Thomas Girtin into a love of low society and intemperate habits; and the fact of Morland’s having been his companion may have tended to confirm the impression. His family indeed represented him as being far more abstemious than most young men of his day, and even asserted that he was a water-drinker. As to social inclination, they attributed to him an acquired relish for the refined society which he had enjoyed in the company of his noble patrons, which led him to declare, ‘with a touch of affectation,’ says Mr. Jenkins, ‘excusable in so young a man’,94 that he had a dislike for all other society.95 John Pye writes, that Girtin’s wife was ‘extremely angry’ at the report of his being fond of low company, as he ‘disliked it exceedingly, and was on the contrary too fond of refined society to enjoy that of the illiterate and vulgar. He lived so much with his superiors in rank and station that, she says, it gave him a distaste for the middle classes, who were not at that time so well educated as of later years. But he never slighted old companions and friends.’

Point has been given to the story of Girtin’s intemperance and dissipation by drawing a contrast with the career of Turner,96 and a moral lesson has been derived from the allegation that Girtin shortened his days by a loose course of living, while Turner prolonged his life by better regulated habits. But such evidence as there is rather points to the conclusion that Girtin was temperate, married respectably, and died (of heart disease) universally beloved; and that Turner, though he lived to be an old man, was not averse to low society, being himself unpolished and illiterate, and rather fond of tippling, and that he died in churlish seclusion, attended only by one of his mistresses, a woman of no cultivation, but the sole intimate friend he cared to have about him.

‘Generous and giddy’ are the epithets more fairly applied by Peter Pindar (Dr. Wolcott) to his ‘early acquaintance, Tom Girtin.’ He was considered by all who knew him, to be a most delightful companion, and was generous and noble-minded even to a fault,34 ‘with little consciousness,’ says Leslie,98 ‘of his own great merit.’

John Pye, to whom it was always a strong recommendation to be a good man of business, writes of him that his principal failing was ‘great carelessness in money matters. When he had money he could not keep it if any one wanted it.’ Mrs. Borrett said ‘she one day heard a poor artist telling him a tale of misery, and Girtin, having no money at the time, gave him a beautiful drawing for which he had refused twenty guineas.’ She and her husband ‘always spoke of him as one of the kindest and best of men.’78 



Girtin’s relations – Publication of the Paris views – Fire at John Girtin’s – Chambers Hall and Mr. Jackson – Gifts of Girtin drawings to the British Museum – Turner and Girtin’s prices – Turner’s ‘Norham’ – Rival drawings – Turner becomes R. A. – Comparative estimates of art of Turner and Girtin – Their respective influence on the water-colour school – Girtin’s on Constable.

GIRTIN, dying so young, left all his near relations as well as his contemporaries in art to survive him, some for many years. His widow, as his mother had done, married again. Her second husband’s name was Cohen. Thomas Calvert Girtin, the only child of Thomas Girtin’s brief marriage, became a surgeon. He resided at 48 Canonbury Square, Islington, and possessed a valuable collection of his father’s drawings. In 1837 he edited a popular little work on human anatomy called ‘The House we live in’ (founded on an American book of the same name by Dr. Alcott), which has run through many editions. He is mentioned as a ‘warm lover of the drama, and an intense admirer’ of Samuel Phelps the actor, who when manager of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, from 1844 to 1862, was his friend and neighbour in Canonbury Square, and to whom he filled the post of family doctor.100

The artist’s brother, John the ‘letter and heraldic engraver,’ also survived him; and after his death took up and published the Paris views, then almost complete. They came out in 1803. The work is entitled: A Selection of Twenty of the most Picturesque Views in Paris and its Environs, ‘drawn and etched in the year 1802 by the late Thomas Girtin, being the only etchings of that celebrated artist, and aquatinted in exact imitation of the original drawings, in the collection of the Rt Honble the Earl of Essex.’ The finished plates bear imprints with dates from 16 Dec. 1802 to 4 April 1803. But the etchings are variously dated from 16 June to 4 October 1802, some at ‘Islington,’ and one at least (4 Aug.) has the imprint ‘Drawn etched and Pubd by T. Girtin, Scott’s Place, Islington.’ It has been observed that in the lengthening intervals between the dates one may trace the rapid failing of power to work, in the dying artist.101

The aquatint engravers employed to put in the light and shade from the impressions tinted by him were J. C. Lewis, J. B. Harraden, W. Pickett, and J. C. Stadler, the greater number being by J. C. Lewis, who five or six years afterwards engraved in a similar style for Turner the first plate of the Liber Studiorum. John Girtin published the Paris views at his house in Little Newport Street.102 On ‘May 16, 1817,’ we find the name and address, ‘J. Girtin, Engraver, Printer &c. at No. 25 Old Compton Street, 3 doors from Prince’s Street, Soho,’ in the imprint of a mezzotint portrait, by S. W. Reynolds after Opie, of ‘the late extraordinary artist,’ Thomas Girtin. After dedicating this plate to ‘Sir George Beaumont, Bart.’ as ‘one of the artist’s earliest patrons,’ the publisher adds: ‘J. Girtin, in the recent fire in Broad Street, having lost all his property excepting some prints &c. which with this portrait of his late brother he respectfully offers to a liberal public.’ In the stock thus destroyed by fire it is said that there were some of Thomas Girtin’s finest works and many copies of the Paris views, which thus became scarce;103 and moreover that John Girtin’s calamity was not confined to the loss of his house and goods, but that his invalid wife died in his arms as he carried her through the flames.104 She was the daughter of a Mr. Jackson, a wealthy timber merchant, who seems to have been a queer sort of person. According to his own account, in conversations with Mr. Chambers Hall, who obtained from him some important Girtin drawings, he used to play the patron to his artist nephew-in-law, going about with him and supplying him with money, and promising him good dinners, on condition that he should first make his host a drawing. He showed Mr. Hall a view from the window of the Old Toy inn at Hampton Court, which he said he obtained in this manner. Mr. Hall was under the mistaken impression that this Mr. Jackson was the father, not of Mrs. John, but of Mrs. Tom, Girtin; and cited his authority for some stories, not, as he made it appear, to his supposed son-in-law’s credit; alleging (among other things) that his was a runaway marriage, which has been sufficiently proved above, not to have been so in the artist’s case. Possibly he was speaking of John Girtin.

Mr. Hall gave the following account of the manner in which he acquired some of Jackson’s stock of Girtin drawings. Having received no answer to a letter which he had written from Southampton to ask the possessor whether he intended to part with any of them, and coming to town about six months after, the intending collector called at Mr. Jackson’s. There was a fine carriage at the door, and high words were heard within the house. Mr. Hall knocked. Mr. Jackson was ‘not at home.’ But he presented himself immediately, saying, ‘Yes, I am at home’. A gentleman who had been with him then entered the carriage and drove away. ‘I am at home to you,’ says Jackson, ‘because I used you ill in not replying to your letter. If it had not been for that, I should not have seen you. Do you know who that was who has just left? No? It was the Earl of Essex, who wants my drawings. But I won’t part with them. He offended me. He would not take an answer, and so I quarrelled with him and we have been at high words about it.’ Mr. Hall, as he was not to be received as a purchaser, begged to be allowed at least to look round the room where the drawings hung. Mr. Jackson pressed him to stay and dine. He did so, and the two struck up an acquaintance, cemented by a second dinner, by special invitation, ‘to meet Captain * * *.’ After this, Mr. Jackson’s affairs became straitened by divers proceedings at law. When two simultaneous Chancery suits had combined to drain the exchequer, Mr. Hall thought the occasion had come for making a fresh attempt. So he ventured to hint that he should be glad to have a drawing or two. To his surprise, Jackson told him that he might have whichever he liked. Mr. Hall at once pointed out about five, and, taking them out of their frames, carried them off in triumph. He afterwards acquired more from the same source; and in 1855 presented to the British Museum the collection so made. In 1878 a rich addition was made to the store of Girtin’s drawings there, by the bequest by Mr. Henderson of those formerly belonging to his father, Girtin and Turner’s old patron, of Adelphi Terrace.

Memoranda preserved by Pye, of what Chambers Hall told him, afford some evidence of the prices charged both by Girtin and Turner for drawings, during their joint life. Mr. Hall used to say that for drawings of the largest size their prices were the same; and he described a fine one of Girtin’s (27 by 19 inches in size) representing ‘the ruined church of Jedburgh, seen in its full length, the river, in which the building was reflected, flowing between it and the spectator,’ and ‘near the front, standing in shallow water, and on a sand-bank, female figures washing linen,’ for which Mr. Thomas Worthington (above mentioned) paid the artist his highest price, namely six guineas.105 As this was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797, in which year Turner made a celebrated drawing of the same class, for which he charged eight guineas, Pye assumes that it must have been made, as that was, the year before it was exhibited that is to say, in 1796 each painter thus raising his price by two guineas from one year to the next.

Girtin’s works must have become more highly esteemed before he died,106 for, in addition to his mother-in-law’s story of his refusing twenty guineas for one, and then giving it to a beggar, the following letter from the Earl of Harewood, dated Harewood House, 27 July, 1801, names the same amount: ‘I hope you have made the alterations in the Drawings of this place which I wish’d you to do, and that you have returned them to the house in Hanover Square. I think you said they were to be 20 guineas each. If you will call on Mr. Nelson, Merct, at No. 1 Hylord’s Court, Crutched Friars, he will pay you on producing this letter 84 pounds. The frame-maker’s bill I will pay when I go to town.’

The drawing of Turner’s to which reference is above made was exhibited at Somerset House in 1798, and its exhibition constituted an epoch in that painter’s career. Its title was, ‘Norham Castle, on the Tweed – Summer’s Morn,’ to which the following lines from Thomson’s Seasons were added in the catalogue:

But yonder comes the powerful King of Day,

Rejoicing in the East; the lessening cloud,

The kindling azure, and the mountain’s brow

Illumin’d – his near approach betoken glad.

Pye relates107 that ‘a few years before Turner’s decease’ the painter ‘was walking with a friend108 on the bank of the Tweed, when, Norham Castle within view, Turner stopt and bowed in obeisance.’ On his companion’s inquiring why he did so, he answered, ‘Well I may! It was my drawing of Norham Castle that brought me into public notice.’ Perhaps for this reason the subject was one for which he had ever a marked affection. He drew it several times with varying treatment. It was etched by him in the Liber Studiorum in 1816, and mezzotinted there, and in the Rivers of England in 1824 by Charles Turner. Heath engraved it singly in 1827, and Miller in Scott’s Prose Works in 1834.

The following account is given by Pye107 of the origin of this first of the Norham drawings: ‘In 1797, when Turner was 22 years of age, Mr. Blake, of Portland Place, commissioned him to make a drawing at the price of 8 guineas, which was [the price for] the largest size then made, whether by Girtin or Turner. The subject of the work was left to Turner’s choice, who adapted to his purpose Norham Castle. When Mr. Blake was shown the work, and had been told by Turner that it was made expressly for him, he was loud in expressions of pleasure at having become the proprietor of so beautiful a work. “But,” said Turner, “I have been offered 12 guineas for it.” Mr. Blake having objected to paying for it more than the sum agreed upon, and also to preventing Turner being the recipient of the larger sum, the work never came into Mr. Blake’s possession.’ In the following year 1798 the drawing ‘Norham Castle’ appeared in the Royal Academy exhibition. ‘Many years afterwards the public were reminded of the work by an engraving of Norham Castle in the Liber Studiorum, on the lower margin of which is the following inscription: “The Drawing in the possession of the late Lord Lascells.”’ Lascelles is the family name of the Earls of Harewood. In 1858 the drawing (27 by 19 inches) was at Harewood House, Grosvenor Square, whence it was removed to Christie and Manson’s, and there sold on May the 1st, under the name ‘A Castle on a height above a river in which cows are standing,’ to the late Mr. John Dillon at the price of 109l. 4s. At the sale there of that gentleman’s collection in 1869, it was purchased by Agnew for 500 guineas. In 1887 it was the property of Daniel Thwaites, Esq., and lent by him to the Turner loan collection at the Royal Academy, where its place was duly marked in the chronological sequence of the painter’s drawings. The descriptions under which Turner entered his Norham drawing and his other landscapes in 1798 afford a noteworthy contrast to those of previous years. Now and in future they are accompanied by verses of descriptive poetry, and an indication of the condition of light or weather under which the subject is intended to be represented. A visit to the northern counties appears then to have wrought in Turner an enlargement of feeling in the presence of grander and more impressive natural scenery similar to that which inspired the soul and guided the hand of Girtin.

In 1799 a sunset view of Caernarvon Castle by Turner, and a view of mountainous scenery near Beddgelert by Girtin, were two rival drawings at the Academy exhibition, which, unlike in subject and effect, are said to have attracted equal attention.110 But Turner, as before said, was seeking for glory through his pictures in oil. He had become an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1800; and in 1802, the year of Girtin’s death, he blossomed forth into a full Academician, and instead of remaining as before plain ‘W. Turner,’ he wrote his name at length, as he had been christened (at St. Paul’s Church, near the site of Girtin’s grave), ‘Joseph Mallord William Turner, R. A.’ Up to this time, though he had already launched out into poetic themes, such as the two ‘Plagues of Egypt,’ he had for the most part worked in the same field of nature with Tom Girtin. Both were abroad for the first time in 1802, and it is by the consideration of what they had done when painters of no experience beyond the scenery of their native land that comparative justice can best be done to their respective merits as artists.

‘The impression derived,’ says Mr. Jenkins, ‘from a comparison of Turner and Girtin at this period, 1800–1802, is that Turner was the more careful and painstaking, Girtin the more vigorous and stronger in colour.’ ‘The breadth of Turner,’ says Pye, ‘is greater than that of Girtin. Energy of individuality in Girtin is generally greater than breadth.’ William Havell said that both Turner and Girtin were ‘great experimentalists in rendering paper and water-colours subservient to the expression of light, which they found to be chiefly dependent on gradation.’111

‘In Turner,’ adds Pye, ‘gradation was the governing power. In Girtin, gradation had its influence, but the parts were the governing power. Turner’s gradation commenced from the marginal line of the foreground of his work. In Girtin’s works it did not begin till half-way to the horizon; consequently it was not so complete as Turner’s.’ But he adds, ‘The composition of forms and natural laws of light applied to the production of artificial light in a drawing, or of chiaroscuro apart from and in connection with local colours, were matters with which Turner was not more conversant than Girtin.’ ‘Sobered tints of exquisite truth, and broad chiaroscuro, are,’ says Leslie,112 ‘the prevailing characteristics of Girtin.’

Pye regarded the English school of Landscape art which was founded by Girtin and Turner as one ‘based upon a practical knowledge of chiaroscuro,’ the study of which had been little attended to by continental artists. Havell, no mean authority, gave to Turner the credit of being ‘the first of the water-colour draftsmen who aimed at making the eye of the spectator look into the subject of the drawing beyond the surface of the paper on which it was executed, and through it into immeasurable space.’ The earlier drawings of Paul Sandby and the school before Cozens he called ‘unmeaning muddle,’ declaring that ‘in them the eye always rested on objects individually.’ But it was to Turner and Girtin alike that he attributed the merit of ‘introducing fine art into landscape drawing, as Gainsborough had done in a less degree into painting.’

During the joint lives of Girtin and Turner these two artists may be regarded as joint representatives of the new school of water-colour painting of which they were the joint founders. But their influence upon that school in its further development was very different. Turner had few, if any, direct followers. His transcendent power was acknowledged by all artists, and the greatest deference was paid to his judgment when he chose to give it; but the ‘sincerest flattery’ of imitation he never received. Girtin, on the contrary, had hosts of followers even in his lifetime, and it is he who must be looked upon as the real father of the group of painters of which the earlier and leading members of the Water-Colour Society were the foremost representatives.

From the time of Girtin’s death the school may be considered as dividing itself into two branches, or more properly as two separate trees, springing indeed from the same soil, and having grown together as saplings, but with separate roots, one in the practice of Turner, the other in that of Girtin. The former developed into a single giant growth, majestic and solitary, crowning the forest; while in the latter case a seedling group of rising painters sprang up around a stricken stump, and became the school of water colours that flourished in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Nor was Girtin’s influence quite confined to practitioners in that material. Leslie tell us in his Memoirs of Constable113 ‘that the whole course of that painter’s practice was affected by the contemplation of about thirty works by Girtin which Sir George Beaumont recommended him to study as examples of breadth and truth.’



  1. 1 Dr. Monro had also a country house at Bushey, near Watford, besides that at Fetcham. Turner told David Roberts, R. A., that he and Girtin had often walked to Bushey and back to make drawings for their kind patron, at the price above stated. (See Watts’s ‘Biographical Sketch of Turner,’ prefixed to the Liber Fluviorum, p.xi.)
  2. 2 The drawing was lent by Mrs. Courtauld to the Turner collection at the Royal Academy in 1887. A view of the gateway, belonging to Mr. P. C. Hardwick, apparently of about the same date, was among the ‘Drawings of Architectural Subjects’ exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1884.
  3. 3 Pye’s MS. Notes.
  4. 4 This was told to Mr. Jenkins in April 1865 by James Holland, who had it from Dr. Burney himself.
  5. 5 This was told to Mr. Jenkins by Cornelius Varley on 1 January, 1858.
  6. 6 Page 24.
  7. 7 The same writer adds: ‘We are equally ignorant as to the amount of intimacy between Turner and Dr. Monro, for though the latter did not die till 1833, there is nothing to show that they ever met after Turner’s students days were over.’ Pye declared (MS. Notes) that, in Dr. Monro’s opinion, the great painter was ‘blunt, coarse, vulgar, and sly.’ So perhaps his patron may not have sought his society.
  8. 8 J. J. J., ex relatione Mr. Chambers Hall.
  9. 9 No more is known of his ancestry; or of a certain ‘I. Girtin’ (called ‘James’ in the Catalogue of the South Kensington Art Library), who etched a series of poorly executed Portraits of Celebrated Painters, published, with some by other hands, in 4to [quarto], 1817.
  10. 10 MS. Notes.
  11. 11 Century of Painters, i. 387; and see Library of Fine Arts, iii. 310.
  12. 12 MS. Notes.
  13. 13 The work concludes with a description of a ‘portable case for colour,’ to be made in ivory with thirty-two circular cavities, for pigments to use with gum-water, not unlike in arrangement the tin field-sketching boxes in familiar use in the present day. But the writer has no idea of such an apparatus being used for landscape after nature. He merely recommends it to ‘such persons who are curious in making observations of the colours of flowers, to have always in their pocket.’ Mr. Redgrave (Descriptive Catalogue, 16) points to the republication of this work in 1770 as evidence that the materials of water-colour art had not improved at the latter date.
  14. 14 Redgrave’s Century of Painters, i. 388–9.
  15. 15 One was the ‘Windsor,’ published 1 May, 1792, before mentioned; the other was ‘Woolwich,’ published 1 May, 1793.
  16. 16 Thornbury’s Life of Turner, p. 55, 2nd edit.
  17. 17 The Spectator, 14 Aug. 1875.
  18. 18 MS. Notes.
  19. 19 Miller’s Picturesque View’s by Turner and Girtin.
  20. 20 Library of the Fine Arts, iii. 317.
  21. 21 Letter from the late Mr. Bonomi to John Pye.
  22. 22 Turner also gave lessons when a young man. ‘There are old people still living,’ says Thornbury, ‘who remember Turner in 1795 or 1796 that is to say, when he was twenty or twenty-one, and taught in London, at Hadley (Herts), and at other places.’ His biographer is probably right in adding: ‘He was too reserved and too tongue-tied to be able to teach what he knew, even had he cared to disclose his hard-earned secrets.’
  23. 23 MS. Notes.
  24. 24 ‘Girtin, Turner, and Dayes at various times travelled with Mr. Moore to execute drawings for him, for his topographical works.’ J. J. J.
  25. 25 Redgrave’s Century of Painters, i. 390–3.
  26. 26 Somerset House Gazette, i. 82.
  27. 27 Redgrave’s Century of Painters, ubi supra.
  28. 28 Thornbury’s Life of Turner, p. 76.
  29. 29 Formerly in the possession of Sir William Tite, and afterwards in that of Mr. Edward Cohen. It was exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1871 and 1875, and at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877–78.
  30. 30 Somerset House Gazette, i. 82.
  31. 31 Redgrave’s Century of Painters, i. 396.
  32. 32 Pyne, writing in 1824, says that Lady Long, besides being, like her husband, a patron of the fine arts, ‘was known to the world of art’ as having ‘a talent for painting and drawing that might fairly rank her with the professors of the living school,’ and that ‘among the admirers of that lady’s topographical drawings, none were more ardent than Girtin.’ (Somerset House Gazette, ii. 129.)
  33. 33 J. J. J. ex relatione J. Holland.
  34. 34 J. J. J.
  35. 35 Vol. i. pp. 66, 83, 84.
  36. 36 He was the first,’ says his biographer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, ‘who introduced the custom of drawing upon cartridge paper, by which means he avoided that spotty glittering glare, so common in drawings made on white paper.’ ‘It is said that the wire-worked cartridge he loved to work on was only to be obtained at a stationer’s at Charing Cross, and was folded in quires. As the half-sheet was not large enough for his purpose, he had to spread out the sheet, and the crease of the folding being at times more absorbent than the other parts of the paper, a dark blot was caused across the sky, and indeed across the whole picture in many of his works. This defect was at first tolerated on account of the great originality and merit of his works, and gradually gave a higher value to those in which it occurred, being considered a proof of their originality.’ (Redgrave’s Century of Painters, i. 393–4.) ‘But,’ writes Mr. Papworth (MS.) ‘in those days paper was paper; it was made of white linen rags reduced to pulp by a badly made wooden machine which left it fibrous. Shortly afterwards Mr. Whatman produced, at his manufactory in Kent, a paper called vellum paper, which at once superseded all other fabrics. Its texture was calculated to receive the pigments and to bear out [sic] with a vigour of effect that the wire-marked paper could never be brought to possess.’ Then ‘the progress of science taught the means of adulteration, the use of materials which chemically quarrel with each other and the colours, and the employment of superbly finished machinery which leaves no fibrous texture ... In a short period the damage of such operations was felt by Turner, who found that his paper required preparation; and even a quarter of a century had not elapsed before “old paper” was worth a guinea a sheet to men like Harding.’
  37. 37 Century of Painters, i. 387, 395.
  38. 38 J. J. J. ex relatione T. Cafe.
  39. 39 Somerset House Gazette, i. 193, 194. The writer proceeds to lament that the most brilliant effects produced in this way are transient, owing to the fugitive nature of the colours used for glazing.
  40. 40 Somerset House Gazette, i. 30.
  41. 41 Ibid. i. 83.
  42. 42 J. J. J. ex relatione Miss Hog and C. Varley.
  43. 43 Idem, ex rel. T. C. Girtin.
  44. 44 Century of Painters, i. 391; and see Library of Fine Arts, iii. 318.
  45. 45 J. J. J. ex relatione E. Dorrell.
  46. 46 Gentleman’s Magazine.
  47. 47 Miller’s Turner and Girtin’s Picturesque Views.
  48. 48 J. J. J. MSS.
  49. 49 Redgrave’s Century of Painters, i. 399.
  50. 50 Thornbury’s Life of Turner, p. 66.
  51. 51 Thornbury’s Life of Turner, p. 66.
  52. 52 The usual biographers do not tell us much about ‘Louis Francia,’ and what little they have to say is contradictory and not all to his credit. Pilkington, having in a decisive way placed his birth within the present century, sets him down as Girtin’s pupil. Now, whether we give the year 1800 to this century or to the last (a question much discussed at that era), Francia could not, on the above theory, have been quite three years old when Girtin died, and his precocity must have equalled that of the infant in the ‘Bab Ballads’ who died ‘an old dotard’ at the age of five. And moreover he was, as we see, secretary to ‘the Brothers’ in May 1799. Redgrave, more definitely and with greater plausibility, tells us that he was born at Calais on 21 Dec., 1772.
  53. 53 A notice of Louis Francia, peintre de marine, by E. Le Beau, is contained in the Mémoires de la Société d’Agriculture de Calais, and was printed separately. There have been other artists of the same name (besides the old master Francesco Raibolini, of Bologna). A son of Louis Francia’s exhibited pictures at the Royal Academy; and there was a ‘Belgian marine painter’ of the name of Francia, whose death in September 1884 has been recorded.
  54. 54 By Chambers Hall in a letter to John Pye. He is called W. H. Worthington by Thornbury. There was an engraver and draftsman of that name and those initials but if not born (as Redgrave says) till about 1795, he could not be the man.
  55. 55 Probably the ‘R. T. Underwood’ mentioned in Redgrave’s Dictionary. Thornbury calls him ‘S. R. Underwood.’ There is a plate of ‘Roche Rocks and Chapel, Cornwall,’ by ‘J. R. Underwood,’ in Beauties of England and Wales, ii. 517, dated 1802. In Dr. Percy’s Sale Catalogue he is ‘T. R. Underwood.’
  56. 56 Thornbury’s Life of Turner, 66; Library of the Fine Arts, iii. 316.
  57. 57 In the late Dr. Percy’s collection of drawings, sold at Christie’s in April 1890, was a set of seven of the subject, An Ancient Castle, by Callcott, Cotman, Girtin, Murray, Porter, Samuel, and Underwood. It is said that Turner refused to join the society because the host was allowed to have the drawings for his own. (See ‘Thomas Girtin,’ by F. G. Kitton, in the Art Journal for Nov. 1887.)
  58. 58 Thornbury’s Life of Turner, 68.
  59. 59 J. J. J. MSS. ex relatione Mr. J. B. Tootal.
  60. 60 Thaddeus Kosciuszko lived in what had been Hogarth’s house, the south-east corner of Leicester Square, where Archbishop Tenison’s school now stands. (Hare’s Walks in London, ii. 127.)
  61. 61 Henry Richter, who was born in Great Newport Street in 1772, told Mr. Jenkins that, in his early days, this was the only street in London in which there was a printseller’s.
  62. 62 Thaddeus of Warsaw, edit. 1831, p. 110 n.
  63. 63 Since this paragraph was written, Porter Street, even Castle Street itself, and nearly all that it inherited, have dissolved, to make room for Charing Cross Road.
  64. 64 See an account of ‘Bob Porter’ in the schools, insisting on adding a helmet and sword to the Gladiator (Somerset House Gazette, i. 364).
  65. 65 John Hunter’s house in Leicester Square, where he first began, in 1785, to collect his museum, was next to the Alhambra, to the south, between it and Hogarth’s. (Hare’s Walk in London, ii. 127.) The back may have looked upon Castle Street.
  66. 66 These drawings were at the same time etched by H. A. Barker, the shading was coarsely aquatinted by F. Birnie, and the whole were published in six sheets, about 22 inches by 17. They are dated 1792 and 1793.
  67. 67 Somerset House Gazette, ii. 152.
  68. 68 J. J. J. ex relatione J. Masey Wright.
  69. 69 He published an account, with delineations of the building, in 1800.
  70. 70 For many of the above facts see obituary notice of H. A. Barker in the Gentleman’s Magazine.
  71. 71 The Lyceum was a great exhibition room in the Strand, where the theatre of that name now stands. It was originally built for the accommodation of the Incorporated Society of Artists, which removed thither from Spring Gardens in 1773. See below.
  72. 72 Galignani’s Messenger, 13 September, 1881.
  73. 73 Redgrave’s Century of Painters, 399.
  74. 74 John Pye’s MSS.
  75. 75 First series, vol. iv. p. 21.
  76. 76 Obituary notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine.
  77. 77 J. J. J. MSS. ex relatione Miss Hog.
  78. 78 Pye’s MSS.
  79. 79 Or was. See Catalogue of the Girtin Exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1875 (page 7 n), to which collection Miss Miller contributed many fine drawings of the master’s.
  80. 80 J. J. J.
  81. 81 Gentleman’s Magazine.
  82. 82 At No. 2, or according to Pye ‘No. 9.’ (MSS.)
  83. 83 There was exhibited at the Nottingham Museum in 1884 a view by Sandby of the cemetery in which his studio appears. A bistre drawing by Girtin of St. George’s Row, formerly in Dr. Percy’s collection, is now at the British Museum. The house with a shade over the window was Sandby’s. (Percy Catalogue.)
  84. 84 Girtin’s mother had married a Mr. Vaughan, a pattern-drawer. Miller, in Turner and Girtin’s Picturesque Views, assuming that the marriage took place shortly after her first husband’s death, conjectures that both Girtin and Turner derived from this stepfather their introduction to art. Possibly this was the Thomas Vaughan mentioned by Ottley, in his supplement to Bryan, p. 149, as residing in Spitalfields, and the master of Robert Seymour the caricaturist.
  85. 85 From an autograph lately in the collection of Mr. W. V. Morten.
  86. 86 Miller’s Turner and Girtin’s Picturesque Views.
  87. 87 Notes on Turner’s ‘Liber Studiorum,’ p. 47 n.
  88. 88 Mr. Jenkins, in a note dated 5 November, 1853, states that he saw these drawings in the hands of Mr. John Pye, the engraver, who was writing a little account of Girtin to append to the work, and adds: ‘They are exquisitely drawn and tinted, and the gradations which give space admirably managed.’ In an earlier memorandum, dated 11 January, 1852, he relates that Mr. Pye, some time before, when going over the Library of Woburn Abbey, with the librarian, Mr. John Martin, discovered these same drawings there, they having previously been supposed by the custodian to be coloured prints. He also states that Mr. Pye ‘copied some of these drawings and consequently became well acquainted with them.’ Mr. Pye is not known to have completed this promised account of Girtin. The manuscript notes by him respecting that painter, which have occasionally been cited in these pages, appear to have been made with a view to a more comprehensive work projected by him, but left quite in embryo, on the history of painting in Great Britain, and the influence thereon of Turner as well as Girtin.
  89. 89 The Rue St. Denis is one of the most effective in the engraved series. The street leading to the arch is filled with carts and foot-passengers, and wonderfully conveys the air of a bustling metropolitan thoroughfare. There was in the collection of Archdeacon Burney, and afterwards in that of Dr. Percy, a fine coloured drawing by Girtin of the same subject (measuring 15 ¾ by 19 ⅜ inches), in which the houses are carried up much higher, and there are no figures or carts. It looks like a sketch made on the spot, and it may have been used for the scene at Covent Garden. It was bought at the Percy sale, 17 April, 1890, by Messrs. Colnaghi & Co., for twenty-three guineas. Another fine view of the arch, taken in flank, is in the South Kensington National Collection.
  90. 90 Turner and Girtin’s Picturesque Views, p. xliv.
  91. 91 See Somerset House Gazette, i. 66, 82; Library of the Fine Arts, iii. 315, 319; &c.
  92. 92 Life of Morland, 200 n.
  93. 93 Mr. Henderson had a copy by Girtin after a picture of Morland’s called ‘Dogs hesitating about the Pluck,’ which copy, as usual, was impressed with his own originality. See Burlington Fine Arts Club Catalogue, 1875, No. 127 (Girtin Exhibition).
  94. 94 My father was almost ascetically temperate, and his taste always inclined to the refined and elegant.’ (Girtin’s son, quoted by Thornbury in Life of Turner, second edition, p. 61.)
  95. 95 Miss Hog to Mr. Jenkins.
  96. 96 See Dayes’s account of Turner in his Professional Sketches.
  97. 97 J. J. J.
  98. 98 Handbook for Young Painters, 266.
  99. 99 Pye’s MSS.
  100. 100 Life of Samuel Phelps, by W. M. Phelps and Forbes Robertson (1886), p. 9.
  101. 101 Miller and Thornbury. The dates they give are June 16, 18, 25, 28; July 6, 12, 16, 19; August 4, 9, 17; September 2, 29; October 4.
  102. 102 In 1805 the name of ‘Mr. Girtin, New Street, Covent Garden,’ appears in a list of subscribers to Dayes’s works. If this be Thomas Girtin’s brother, his subscription was a Christian act. Another neighbouring address, given as that of John Girtin, is ‘Castle Street, Leicester Square.’ See Thornbury’s Life of Turner, 2nd edit. p. 7. The title to Ackermann’s Repository, vol. i. (June 1809) has on it, ‘Girtin scrt.’
  103. 103 A copy was sold in Paris – Vente Danlos – in December 1880 for 321 francs (about 13l. 7s 6d.).
  104. 104 Library of the Fine Arts, iii. 318.
  105. 105 Mr. Worthington made a copy of it, which he presented to Mr. Hall.
  106. 106 The highest prices for drawings by Girtin, recorded in Mr. Redford’s Art Sales, are 163l. 16s. for ‘Lichfield Cathedral,’ in ‘Charles Vine’ sale, 1873; and 161l. 14s. for ‘The River Exe’ in ‘Bale’ sale, 1881. All others are under 100l.
  107. 107 MSS.
  108. 108 Said to have been Cadell, the publisher. See Rawlinson’s Notes on Collection of Drawings by Turner at R. A. 1887, p. 9.
  109. 109 MSS.
  110. 110 William Havell to Pye.
  111. 111 ‘In such matters,’ he said, ‘there was no trick that they were not up to. Turner used to cut out figures in paper and paste them on his drawing. If his experiments spoiled one part of a drawing, he would paste the good part upon another piece of paper, rub down the edges of it, and work on the new surface till he brought the whole into harmony. He and Girtin would also seek to create gradation by pumping water upon their drawings.’
  112. 112 Handbook for Young Painters, 265.
  113. 113 Chapter I., p. 6.