Master and Pupil: Edward Dayes and the Industrious Apprentice
Girtin’s master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), left a short and highly critical biography of a young artist who he claimed had ‘trifled away a vigorous constitution’ and whose character was typical of those flawed by ‘the fatal effects of suffering their passions to overpower their reason’. 1 Girtin’s drawings may have been ‘the offspring of a strong imagination’, he continued, but they were ‘generally too slight’ and they crucially lacked the high moral purpose of the historical watercolours that Dayes himself undertook to balance his work as a topographical artist. Other biographers, however, tell of a master who was jealous of his pupil’s success with wealthy patrons and who went as far as to have the young Girtin imprisoned as a ‘refractory apprentice’.2 The latter anecdote was no more than a romantic fabrication by a notoriously untrustworthy writer, but it is still clear that there was little sympathy between master and pupil. Their relationship ended well before the completion of the seven years that Girtin was legally required to serve in return for basic instruction in the art of painting in watercolours, together with some of the other skills that made up Dayes’ varied practice as an artist. The evidence is far from complete, but it seems that Girtin spent no more than three years in Dayes’ studio, having signed his indentures in May 1789 at the age of fourteen. In that time, though, Girtin quickly mastered the basic skills of the topographical artist, and, as illustrated by the only dated watercolour from 1792, London from Highgate Hill (figure 1), he was well equipped to take his first steps as a professional aged just seventeen.
The skills imparted by Dayes in the course of Girtin’s apprenticeship resulted from a combination of watching the master at work, undertaking practical tasks around the studio and following a progressive course of study. The last of these was no doubt based on the programme that Dayes outlined in his Instructions for Drawing and Coloring Landscapes and involved moving in stages from simple copying exercises from admired models to studying landscape in the field, and a parallel progress from outline to the use of full colour. 3 The practical tasks would have included the preparation of the artist’s pigments, which meant not only that Girtin’s earliest watercolours employed the same palette as his master’s but also that he picked up a sound knowledge of what materials were most secure from fading, as Dayes was particularly interested in colour science and its practical application.
Aside from a single dated pencil drawing, All Saints’ Church, Fulham, from the Seven Bells, Putney (TG0059) and a series of costume studies (TG0051), there are no surviving examples of Girtin’s student works; everything else that dates from his time in Dayes’ studio is related to specific commissions that the young artist conducted on behalf of his master from as early as 1790 (figure 2). Girtin’s first dated drawings are thus a series of figures and landscape subjects from Iceland that he made for John Thomas Stanley (1766–1850) from drawings that, in turn, had been painted for Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820), who had travelled to the island in 1772. Another early commission, for a series of views of London architecture made for Charles Taylor’s (1756–1823) publication The Temple of Taste (TG0039), was also copied from the work of other artists. The pattern was therefore set for the early part of Girtin’s career: a topographical artist who because of his age could not travel and was dependent on the sketches and drawings of others for his material, as was no doubt the case with his nonetheless impressive view of Tintern Abbey (figure 3).
One of the routine studio tasks that Girtin undertook on Dayes’ behalf was the colouring of his prints, and the last year in his master’s service was dominated by the tedious business of adding watercolour washes to a series of nine prints of military uniforms that Dayes published in the early days of the prolonged war with revolutionary France (figure 4). This was hardly engaging work for an ambitious artist and, according to an early biographer, Walter Thornbury (1828–76), it was the way that Dayes ‘treated him as a mere means of making money’ that was the ultimate cause of their split. Thornbury was the source of the fanciful story about Girtin’s imprisonment, but the discovery that Dayes was selling his apprentice’s watercolours at auction from as early as June 1791 suggests he was better informed about their financial relationship.4 A view of Eton College (figure 5) is one of a significant number of watercolours – including scenes in the Lake District (TG0078), and depictions of the cathedrals of Durham (TG0012) and Rochester (TG0057) – that Girtin made on a generous scale from compositions by Dayes and that his master consigned to the auction rooms. These were definitely not the outcome of lessons in the studio but finished commodities that Dayes sold as a way of recouping his losses attendant on Girtin’s departure, and were thus also a way for the young artist to effectively pay off his indentures. At some point before 1793, it seems that Girtin had learnt all he could from Dayes, and the association no longer provided him with any significant pedagogical benefit.
The 118 entries in the section Master and Pupil: Edward Dayes and the Industrious Apprentice can be accessed here.
All Saints’ Church, Fulham, from the Seven Bells, Putney
1790 - 1791
Henry VIII in 1520
1790 - 1791
The Banqueting House, Whitehall
1791 - 1792
Lake Windermere and Belle Isle
Durham Cathedral, from the River Wear
Rochester Castle, from the River Medway
First Steps as a Professional Artist: James Moore and British Antiquities
In April 1794 Girtin had his first watercolour accepted for display at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy. Sent from his mother’s address, it signalled that whatever the circumstances, his apprenticeship to Edward Dayes (1763–1804) had ended. The view of Ely Cathedral (figure 6) was hardly an unequivocal sign of independence, however, based as it was on a sketch by the artist’s first significant patron, a prosperous linen draper from Southwark, James Moore (1762–99). The young artist did not have the money to travel and was as dependent on the models provided by the amateur artist and antiquarian as he had earlier been on similar material provided by Dayes. Girtin presumably first met Moore in the studio of his master, who sometime in 1792 was commissioned to make watercolour versions of the amateur’s sketches. A series of payments from Moore of three shillings a day appear to date from late 1792 into 1793, suggesting that Dayes transferred the mundane task to Girtin, and a group of roughly seventy small watercolour copies of antiquarian subjects was the initial outcome.5 Kirkstall Abbey, from the South East (figure 7), seen in its original mount, is a typical example of the way in which the young artist took Moore’s simple outline of one of the many monastic ruins that he sketched on his tours and translated the dry record into something altogether more picturesque. Girtin later returned to Kirkstall, but in many cases copying Moore’s sketches was the closest he came to visiting whole swathes of the country, including South Wales, the Lake District and almost all of Scotland. In one sense this was hack work, but Girtin did turn it to his advantage, trying out a wide range of natural effects to enhance the picturesque appeal of Moore’s drawings, as with the view Stonehenge during a Thunderstorm (TG0095). Occasionally, Moore concentrated on the landscape setting of a building, as with Dunnottar Castle (figure 8), giving Girtin the opportunity to add a seascape from his imagination. It was to be another four years, during his first independent tour away from London, before Girtin first saw the sea, and in general his short career was marked by surprisingly little travel for a topographical artist whose subject matter covered a full range of the nation’s scenery.
Moore was a London-based member of the mercantile class whose antiquarian interests extended to his native city and its rich medieval architectural legacy. Therefore, in addition to supplying Girtin with his own sketches, he commissioned views of the ruins of the Savoy Palace (next to the Thames) prior to its demolition a few years later (figure 9). Girtin’s early biographers claimed that the young artist had learnt much from sketching expeditions along the banks of the Thames, but his lifelong commitment to the subject of the capital, and his native city, can equally be traced back to his work for patrons such as Moore 6 The Albion Mills, Southwark, after the Fire (figure 10), which anticipates the first section of the artist’s monumental panorama of London (TG1851), is actually based on an on-the-spot drawing by Moore, even though the site itself was only a few metres away from the artist’s birthplace.
In total, Moore owned more than a hundred watercolours and drawings by Girtin, the majority of which were copied from the patron’s sketches, including a sizeable group of views in Sussex that some earlier writers thought were made on a shared tour in 1795.7 A trip to the Midland counties in 1794 to sketch a series of cathedrals and castles is, in contrast, better documented, but a growing awareness of Girtin’s dependence on secondary material well into his career has made the idea of a second antiquarian tour untenable. Indeed, it now appears that the young artist actually worked over, improving and enhancing, many of Moore’s Sussex sketches at a later date, and examples such as All Saints’ Church, Hastings, from the North East (TG0245) are included in this catalogue of Girtin’s drawings as examples of his habit of collaborating with other artists, amateurs as well as professionals. Moore was careful to date his original on-the-spot sketches, and so it has been possible to arrange Girtin’s versions of his compositions so that they follow the sequence of the patron’s journeys, beginning in 1787 with a trip to South Wales and including a number of visits to the North East, Yorkshire and into Scotland, the last of which may have influenced the itinerary of Girtin’s own first independent journey in 1796, to the north of England and the Scottish Borders.
The 160 or so entries in the section First Steps as a Professional Artist: James Moore and British Antiquities can be accessed here.
1792 - 1793
Stonehenge during a Thunderstorm
The Albion Mills: Colour Study for the ‘Eidometropolis’, Section One
All Saints’ Church, Hastings, from the North East
Topography without Travel: The British Landscape at Second Hand
One of the most surprising aspects of Girtin’s artistic practice was his willingness, throughout his career, to use secondary sources as the basis for his watercolours. This latterly amounted to a bold assertion that the power of the imagination was more important than the actual experience of a location, but in the early part of his life it was more a question of necessity. As a teenage artist without the finance required for travel, he had no choice but to depend on the sketches of others. Girtin’s work with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) at the home of their mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), centred on the production of several hundred views of the Continent based primarily on the sketches of John Robert Cozens (1752–97), the locations of which Girtin did not have the opportunity to visit because of the severe restrictions placed on travel by the war with France. But Girtin also executed a substantial number of secondhand views of British landscapes and antiquities, such as The Refectory of Walsingham Priory (figure 11), for the same patron. These took the form of pencil drawings from which he painted small coloured cards, and almost without exception these too were based on sketches by other artists. The sources of these slight images were sketches by an amateur, James Moore (1762–99), and Girtin’s master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), and it is a striking feature of Girtin’s relationship with the latter that he continued to use his master’s compositions for many years after he left his studio, probably referring to the numerous examples of his drawings in Monro’s collection. There is no evidence that Girtin ever visited the picturesque regions of the Lake District or the Wye Valley, including Tintern Abbey (figure 12), which were extremely popular with tourists at this date, and there is some doubt as to whether he even managed the short trip to Windsor. Whether the location was an obscure site of interest only to the antiquarian or a much vaunted and visited castle or abbey ruins, it seems that Girtin was content to satisfy the demand for views from secondary sources.
The 80 or so entires in the section Topography without Travel: The British Landscape at Second Hand can be accessed here.