Thomas Girtin was born on 18 February 1775 in the splendidly named Great Bandy Leg Walk, Southwark, now Great Guildford Street. He was the second son of John Girtin (1738–78), a brushmaker, and Rosehanna (or Rose Hannah) Girtin (née Townsend, unknown dates). His older brother, John, was born in 1773 (died 1821) and a younger sister, Mary, was born in 1777. The family descended from Thomas Gwertyn, who as a Protestant fled religious persecution in France in the sixteenth century and, like many other Huguenots, settled in Southwark, south of the river Thames in London. Generations of increasingly anglicised Girtins, belonging to the artisanal classes and barely straying from Southwark, succeeded him. The elder John Girtin died when Thomas was aged only three, leaving Rosehanna to bring up the three children. She moved soon after, across the river to St Martin’s-le-Grand, near Aldersgate Street, setting up a shop and carrying on her late husband’s business as ‘R. Girtin brushmaker’, as the trade directories listed her. The future artist therefore spent most of his childhood and early youth within sight of St Paul’s Cathedral – a view that he was to make the subject of one of his earliest mature watercolours (figure 1). It is an image that establishes Girtin’s social origins with some precision as the youngest son of a member of the urban artisanal class; according to his will, the elder John Girtin had ‘lately built … a dwelling house and premises’ and was therefore sufficiently well off to provide somewhat for his children after his death.1
This provision took the form of apprenticeships for both John and Thomas. John was apprenticed in 1787, paying the not inconsiderable fee of £45 and eventually becoming a letter engraver of some distinction. Two years later, in 1789, the fourteen-year-old Thomas joined the artist Edward Dayes (1763–1804) (figure 2) for the smaller dividend of thirty guineas, agreeing ‘to serve 7 years’ from May of that year.2 According to the artist’s well-informed obituarist, Girtin showed a natural aptitude for drawing, and this was honed by lessons with a local drawing master, a ‘Mr. Fisher’.3 However, none of Girtin’s childhood drawings have survived, and there is no reason to believe that his abilities marked him out ahead of his contemporaries. Another early story records that Thomas was employed, along with his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), to colour prints for John Raphael Smith (1752–1812); however, this is unsubstantiated.4 In fact, it seems that Girtin’s early biographers conflated the work he executed in partnership with Turner at the home of Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) and the prints he coloured for his master, such as First Regiment of Foot Guards, 1660: Drummer and Private (TG0061b). Hand-colouring prints was just one of a series of mundane tasks required of an apprentice in return for instruction in the skills of a topographical watercolourist, including, no doubt, grinding and preparing the master’s pigments.
Girtin’s earliest surviving watercolours, such as Eton College, from the River (figure 3), dating from 1790, suggest that the young artist had absorbed many of the elements of Dayes’ style within a year or so of commencing his apprenticeship and that copying his master’s compositions was central to the process. Indeed, an early biographer reports that Girtin outstripped his master and, bridling at the way in which he was treated as no better than a servant, rebelled, with the consequence that Dayes had him imprisoned as a refractory apprentice.5 There is no evidence to back this up – indeed, the idea has long been disproved – but the story nonetheless contains an element of truth, since Girtin certainly did not serve out his full term, which would have seen him working for Dayes until 1796. More significantly, we find that from as early as June 1791, Dayes was sending Girtin’s works for sale at the auction house of Thomas Greenwood, and it seems that it was his attempts to make money from his apprentice that were the cause of the breakdown of relations. A watercolour such as Rochester Castle, from the River Medway (figure 4), which was made from a drawing by Dayes and was probably sold by him in January 1792, shows how quickly Girtin had progressed under his master’s tuition, and Dayes was not surprisingly keen to make the most financially of his apprentice’s skills prior to their parting company. Though there is no definitive date for when this occurred, Girtin probably received his first payments as an independent artist by the end of 1792, which would mean he was taking his first steps as a topographical artist at the age of just seventeen. As far as can be told, therefore, by that point Girtin’s formal art education was at an end, and, unlike his contemporary Turner, he had no connection with the Royal Academy or its Schools. From then on, his skills were primarily acquired through his employment by a combination of patrons and the art trade.
Girtin’s independence from his master was signalled by the publication in May 1792 of the first print after one of his drawings – a lost watercolour, Windsor Castle (see print after TG0065) – and by a pencil sketch, All Saints’ Church, Fulham (figure 5), which is dated 7 June and 29 July 1792. The 7 June was a Thursday, suggesting that the young artist was free from his duties to Dayes and was thus able to undertake a sketching expedition in London on his own. More significant still are a series of payments from Girtin’s first patron, the amateur artist and antiquarian James Moore (1762–99), for whom he is documented as working on twenty-six dates between October 1792 and 14 February 1793, though his fee of three shillings a day may still have gone to Dayes.6 Girtin worked on and off for Moore over the course of the next two or three years, producing views of the nation’s cathedrals, ruined abbeys and castles, the majority of which were copied from the amateur’s own outline drawings. The point was that the young artist was not free to travel yet, and in any case he did not have the finance to undertake his own tours to collect material. Stonehenge during a Thunderstorm (figure 6) is one of the more dramatic results of a restrictive type of employment that saw the production of more than seventy small watercolours depicting sites that the antiquarian had visited in his tours across the country but that, in many cases, Girtin would never actually see for himself. At the same time, Girtin also began to produce larger-scale topographical views for other patrons, though watercolours such as Hereford Cathedral, from the River Wye (figure 7), the only dated work from 1793, were still made after compositions originally sketched by Dayes.
Girtin made his debut at the Royal Academy in April 1794, showing Ely Cathedral, from the South East (figure 8) at the annual exhibition and giving his mother’s house at No.2, St Martin’s-le-Grand as his address (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1794). The watercolour was again based on a drawing by Moore, for whom it was painted, though typically for a young artist it did not attract the attention of the press. This is not surprising since, although the work displays a sound grasp of the skills of the topographical artist trained in the style and methods of an established master like Dayes, insecurities in the perspective betray the fact that it was based on a secondary source. Perhaps with this in mind, Moore took the young artist with him on his summer tour, which in 1794 encompassed the Midland counties. Here Girtin was able to complete a series of detailed pencil drawings that provided a more secure basis for a further set of architectural views commissioned by Moore, including Lincoln Cathedral, from the West (figure 9). Other stops on the trip may have included Crowland and Boston in Lincolnshire, as well as Peterborough, Lichfield, Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon, Kenilworth and Southwell.
The year was also notable for Girtin’s first known contact with his famous contemporary, Turner, which occurred at the home of their mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (figure 10). Late in 1794 his residence at the Adelphi in London was described as ‘like an Academy in an evening. He has young men employed in tracing outlines made by his friends’.7 Years later, the two artists recalled that they had visited between six and ten o’clock in the evening across three winters, presumably concluding in 1796–97, and that they were ‘chiefly employed in copying the outlines or unfinished drawings of Cozens &c &c. of which Copies they made finished drawings’. More than four hundred drawings survive, for which ‘Girtin drew in outlines and Turner washed in the effects’.8 The results vary from lightly washed architectural subjects with Girtin’s line predominant, such as Naples: Castel Sant’Elmo and the Convent of San Martino (figure 11), to more fully worked-up compositions where it is difficult to identify the draughtsman’s contribution. In addition to the inevitable problems with the attribution of these drawings, it has not been possible to work out a satisfactory chronology for these collaborations, which stand apart from the stylistic development of both artists.
Girtin exhibited three works at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1795 (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1795): views of Warwick Castle (unidentified) and the cathedrals of Peterborough (TG1017) and Lichfield (figure 12), all of which he had sketched on his 1794 tour at the behest of Moore, for whom they were painted. Girtin’s works were noticed for the first time in the press, albeit fleetingly. However, the only dated watercolour from this year, Durham Cathedral, from the River Wear (figure 13), was still copied from a composition by Dayes. Moreover, whilst it was once thought that the artist accompanied Moore on his summer tour in 1795 to Sussex and the south coast, all of Girtin’s views of the region appear to have been copied from his patron’s drawings. Work for the antiquarian market, much of it on a small scale and relatively slight, concentrating on the nation’s ancient architectural sites, continued to dominate at a time of war, when travel was circumscribed for patrons as well as artists.
About 1796 Girtin sat for his first portrait, a miniature (figure 14), perhaps painted by Henry Edridge (1768–1821) to commemorate his coming of age, though the significance of that event had been considerably reduced by his having escaped from the bonds of his apprenticeship to Dayes, which should have ended only in May of 1796. Whether this was the reason that Girtin had not hitherto undertaken an extended tour out of London on his own is not clear, but sometime during the summer months, after failing to have any work accepted for display at the Royal Academy (or perhaps not submitting anything), the artist set off for the north of England and the Scottish Borders. Presumably he had secured enough promises of commissions from men like Monro and Moore to cover the expense of the trip. None of the twenty or so sketches that have survived, either in pencil or in a limited palette of colour washes such as Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church (figure 15), is dated, and Jedburgh Abbey (TG1227), said erroneously to be inscribed ‘11 October’, must have been produced earlier. However, it is broadly possible to work out the artist’s itinerary from the watercolours he subsequently exhibited or those published as prints. During the Yorkshire leg of the trip, the stops he made included York, Rievaulx Abbey, Ripon, Richmond and Easby. Moving into Northumberland, he sketched at Egglestone, Barnard Castle, Durham, Finchale, Newcastle, Tynemouth, Seaton Sluice, Bothal, Hexham and Etal. Travelling along the coast, and possibly encountering the sea for the first time, visits to Warkworth, Dunstanburgh, Bamburgh, Alnwick and Lindisfarne (figure 16) can be inferred. And finally, the stay in the Scottish Borders probably included Dryburgh, Kelso, Melrose and Jedburgh.
The year 1797 represented a step change in Girtin’s public profile, with a number of his works appearing in print, at auction and at the exhibition of the Royal Academy, where all but one of the ten watercolours he showed were the outcome of the previous year’s northern tour (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1797). Only one of these is dated, and it is not clear exactly which works were exhibited, but the diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821) records that ‘Girtins drawings 18 Inches’ cost ‘4 guineas’, suggesting that it was watercolours such as The West Front of Jedburgh Abbey (figure 17), from the collection of Thomas Monro, that featured in the show.9 A self-portrait of the artist at work (figure 18) on just such an upright architectural view may have been inspired by what appears to have been a determined attempt by Girtin to extend his profile and sales through the Academy. And, on the basis that all publicity is good publicity, Girtin attracted at least one notice in the press, with the anonymous critic noting that though ‘Mr. GIRTIN’S Drawings, in general, appear to be formed on the style of TURNER … they possess considerable merit’, with the soon-to-be-common proviso that ‘it is evident that the Artist is careless in the detail and finishing’.10
Later in 1797, Girtin undertook his second independent tour, to the West Country, and specifically to Exeter and the south and north coasts of Devon. It has always been assumed that this took place in the summer months, but the recent discovery that John Girtin (1773–1821) sent sums of money to his brother in Exeter in early November and to Bideford (in the north) later in the month – to help pay for the expense of the trip – has established a later date as well as indicating a broadly anti-clockwise route. Beginning along the Dorset coast, Girtin’s itinerary appears to have taken in Lulworth, Weymouth, Abbotsbury, Lyme Regis, Exeter, Exmouth, Starcross, Teignmouth, Shaldon, Kingswear, Berry Pomeroy, Totnes, Sharpham, Stonehouse and Plymouth, before turning north to Lydford, Okehampton, the Taw Estuary (figure 19) and Appledore, with a probable return to London via Wells and Bristol. The twenty or so pencil and colour sketches that have been traced include some of the artist’s most attractive and innovative works, though the main focus of the trip was a commission from James Moore for a more conventional architectural view, The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave (figure 20). Girtin’s obituary described the work as ‘principally coloured on the spot where it was drawn’, and this unlikely sounding claim has been confirmed by the discovery of John Girtin’s accounts, which record that his loan included three shillings to cover the cost ‘for porterage of the Sketch of Exeter Cathedral’ to Moore.11
The interior view of Exeter Cathedral was exhibited at the 1798 Royal Academy show, together with three other subjects derived from Girtin’s tour of the southwestern counties (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1798). One of the northern views that Girtin exhibited, Rievaulx Abbey (figure 21), was widely noticed. It divided opinion amongst the reviewers, who either condemned what they saw as its ‘extreme slovenliness’ and ‘wildness’ or praised the artist for his ‘daring and vigorous execution’, arguing that a ‘sedulous attention to the finishing would perhaps be injurious to the effect’.12
For his summer tour in 1798, Girtin chose North Wales as his destination, accompanying ‘a young man from Norwich of the name of Moss’. As Girtin told Farington, he ‘had no money, so Moss advanced him £20, & afterwards £5 more, all of which he expended, as he bore half the expences with Moss, excepting for Carriage Horses & Servant’.13 From the pencil drawings and colour sketches made on the spot, as well as later dated watercolours, it is possible to work out the scope of the artist’s trip, which appears to have included visits to Hawarden, Holywell, Rhuddlan Castle, Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech, the Cain Falls, near Dolgellau, Beddgelert, the Ogwen Falls, Betws-y-Coed, Denbigh, the Vale of Clwyd, Valle Crucis and finally Corwen, where Girtin uncharacteristically dated a drawing – ‘16 August’ (TG1347). Some of the resulting sketches attracted commissions from patrons, including the fine on-the-spot colour study A Mountain View, near Beddgelert (figure 22), which formed the basis of a major watercolour that figured prominently at the following year’s exhibition. Other sketches, no less attractive as studies of natural effects, were not realised as studio watercolours, though it is clear that by this date Girtin was already selling them to collectors who appreciated the less formal side of his output.
Girtin was evidently back in London a few weeks after his stop at Corwen because a pencil drawing showing the artist in profile (figure 23) was signed by George Dance (1741–1825) and dated ‘Augst. 28th. 1798’. The drawing is of some significance as evidence of Girtin’s radical sympathies. Following the lead of men like Charles James Fox (1749–1806) and Francis Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford (1766–1839), Girtin began to wear his hair ‘cropped’ – that is, short and unpowdered – partly as a reference to the style of Roman republicans as seen in their portrait busts, but also to avoid paying the recently introduced tax on hair powder, which helped to finance the war with revolutionary France. The image of Girtin as a radical is corroborated by a reference in a verse letter to James Moore, which reads:
We’ll Talk of Girtin’s Brutus head
And curls not bigger than a bead.14
A later portrait showing the artist in a more conventional guise (TG1924) suggests that Girtin’s public avowal of radical allegiances may have been short lived, and it certainly did not preclude a close association with the Lascelles family of Harewood in Yorkshire, whose estates in the West Indies and links to the slave trade funded an important series of commissions. The first payment from Edward Lascelles (1764–1814), ‘for Drawings, Lessons etc’ at £17 17s, dating from November 1798, possibly indicates a trip to Yorkshire, though this is more likely to have waited until the following year.15
Girtin, now sharing an address with his brother, John, at Long Acre in Covent Garden, made a great impact at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1799 (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1799). The show included just six works, but the view Warkworth Hermitage (figure 24), together with two watercolours listed in the catalogue as ‘Bethkellert, North Wales’ (derived from sketches made on the previous year’s trip), were welcomed as evidence of the advances the artist had made. And for the first time writers acknowledged that Girtin, as well as Turner, was pioneering a new approach to landscape watercolours. Together with the latter’s equally dramatic Caernarfon Castle (figure 25), Girtin’s even larger A Mountain View, near Beddgelert (figure 26) was seen as proof that watercolours might compete with oils as a public art form. As the reviewer of the Lloyds Evening Post noted, ‘This Drawing is something in the style of [Turner] and exhibits all the bold features of genius. The scene here represented is highly romantic, and the objects introduced are all in unison with the character of the piece. Mr. Girtin, we predict, will stand very high indeed in professional reputation’.16
Both A Mountain View, near Beddgelert and The Ogwen Falls (TG1330), which was probably the other 1799 exhibit, were commissions from Edward Lascelles, and payments from throughout the year show how he continued to support Girtin, though he did not extend his patronage to Turner. Joseph Farington records that ‘Mr. Lascelles as well as Lady Sutherland are disposed to set up Girtin against Turner – who they say effects his purpose by industry – the former more genius – Turner finishes too much’.17 This appears to have included supporting Girtin’s summer tour to Yorkshire, which almost certainly featured an extended stay at Harewood House in order to gather material for a further set of commissions of local subjects from Lascelles. A pencil drawing of Middleham is dated 1799 (TG1508), and it is likely that Girtin travelled to Wensleydale from Harewood, as well undertaking more local trips to Knaresborough and perhaps Kirkstall.
The year 1799 also saw two events that mark Girtin’s burgeoning reputation within a profession that, in turn, was seeing an enhanced status and sharper identity. The first relates to the efforts of the Earl of Elgin (1766–1841) to ‘carry a young artist with him’ on his visit to ‘Constantinople’, and the reaction from professional artists to his ‘mean ideas’ regarding a fee.18 Elgin sounded out the two outstanding young watercolourists of the day but found that Turner demanded £400. As to Girtin, ‘whose drawings are so much admired in this year’s exhibition’, he was reported to have been ‘engaged to accompany his Lordship on this expedition’, but the artist later told William Henry Pyne (1770–1843) a more complete version of the story.19 Not only was the £30 offered to him insufficient but also Girtin strongly objected to the suggestion that he might assist Lady Elgin ‘in decorating fire-skreens, work-tables, and such other elegancies’. Pyne records that Girtin told him in a conversation in June 1802 that he ‘had spent useless hours impatiently, by waiting between the hall and the presence-chamber, and had the mortification to learn a severe lesson,—that his talents were not estimated at half the value of those of his Lordship’s valet de chambre’.20 Events such as this no doubt hastened the artist’s determination to find ways of becoming less dependent on traditional patterns of patronage, and this is one way of looking at the other significant event of 1799 in the development of the status and identity of the profession: the foundation of the Sketching Society (figure 27). The first meeting – on 20 May, at the home of François Louis Thomas Francia (1772–1839) – saw the convening of a ‘small and select society of Young Painters under the title … of the Brothers’ who, according to a note made by Francia, ‘met for the purpose of establishing by practice a school of Historic Landscape’.21 The mix of professional and amateurs, including Paul Sandby Munn (1773–1845), Robert Ker Porter (1777–1842) and George Samuel (active 1785–1823), quickly reverted to a less lofty plan, with meetings being organised around the selection of poetic passages for illustration. But though this was mixed with a frankly convivial atmosphere, it still marked a significant shift in the aspirations of young watercolourists. Girtin’s choice of passages for illustration, tellingly, reveals a thoroughly conventional taste, with no suggestion of a link with the emerging Romantic poets, who have often been associated with the artist’s similarly innovative approach to landscape.22
Up until 1800 Girtin had only ever dated one or two of his watercolours, then suddenly we find no fewer than thirty examples inscribed on subjects gathered on trips ranging from North Wales to the West Country, including the Scottish Borders and the North East. Earlier writers, including Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, suggested that this is evidence of a spate of trips at this time, including second visits to Wales and the southwestern counties, as well as to the Lake District. It is now clear that Girtin never visited the Lake District, and the only documentary evidence for a journey in 1800 is the record of a stay at Harewood House in Yorkshire in August. In fact, the most probable explanation for Girtin’s radical change of practice lies in the arrangement that the artist came to with Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who, at some point during the year, began to act as his representative, working in a uncertain role somewhere between agent and dealer. A document from 1801 records that Reynolds then owned ‘Drawings by Girtin 19 Large size’ at £7 7s each and ‘10 smaller’ at £4 4s each.23 It was the larger watercolours, measuring about 12 5/8 × 20 3/8 in (32.1 × 51.8 cm), such as Kirkstall Abbey (figure 28), that were dated by Girtin. This was presumably done in order to indicate to potential purchasers that these works were not unsold stock and that for their seven guineas they were getting the artist’s latest work. However, even though the watercolours that passed through the hands of Reynolds may have been produced in bulk from earlier sketches, they include some of Girtin’s finest and most innovative works, not least the iconic Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea) (figure 29).
Girtin’s dealings with wealthy patrons such as Edward Lascelles were not at an end, however, as a second extended visit to Harewood, in the summer of 1800, saw him gathering material for a major commission for large views of the house and estate (figure 30). Together with other subjects with family associations in or near Knaresborough, the close-framed views were completed in the following year. The artist also took the opportunity to visit popular picturesque sites, such as Bolton Abbey, as well as the more dramatic scenery of Gordale Scar, on expeditions from Harewood, before journeying to Morpeth and Wetherby, and then on to stay with the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742–1829) at Dryburgh, taking in Eildon, Melrose and Kelso on the way. A visit to Mulgrave Castle and Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast is also likely to have occurred during this year (figure 31). The on-the-spot colour sketches Girtin produced during this year are amongst the finest of his career, and they too attracted sales from amongst his patrons. The expanding market for the less formal side of Girtin’s work, together with the use of an agent, might help to account for the reduction in his submissions to the Royal Academy, with three works shown in 1800 and just one more before his death in 1802.
Girtin gave his address in the catalogue of the Academy exhibition in 1800 as 11 Scott’s Place, Islington, which was the home of a new patron, the prosperous London goldsmith Phineas Borrett (1756–1843) (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1800). He had recently commissioned from the artist a series of picturesque views of the farms that he had bought in Essex as an investment (figure 32), and this was presumably how Girtin came to meet his daughter, Mary Ann Borrett (1781–1843), whom he married at St George’s, Hanover Square, on 16 October.
There are seventeen watercolours that are dated 1801 by Girtin including Guisborough Priory (figure 33), ten or so of which appear to have been made for Reynolds to sell on. The majority of the dated works, including two that were produced for Edward Lascelles, are based on sketches that were made on the artist’s northern trip in the previous year. Almost without exception, these watercolours have faded, with the loss of the original blues and yellows playing havoc with their effect, so that all too often they are a shadow of their original state. The practical aspects of the artist’s career as a watercolourist are surprisingly well documented, as his colleague William Henry Pyne witnessed Girtin at work and left a record of the pigments he used, as well as details of his colour mixes and the distinctive low-grade cartridge paper that he employed. Sadly, of the fifteen pigments listed by Pyne, at least four are notoriously fugitive, including indigo for the blues and gamboge for the yellows, and the use of these alone in the skies and for the foliage is enough to account for the faded appearance of so many of his later watercolours.24 In comparison, Girtin’s earliest works have often survived in a much better condition, testimony to the technical instruction he received from Edward Dayes, whose sound practice is documented in his writing on watercolours.25
Whether or not Dayes also instructed Girtin in the skills of oil painting is not known; however, if the reviews of the artist’s debut in the medium at the Royal Academy in 1801 with a view titled Bolton Bridge (TG1687) are anything to go by, the painting was anything but a beginner’s exercise. One critic called it ‘one of the very best works which the present Exhibition contains’, comparing it favourably to the efforts of Turner, who was shortly to be elected a full member of the Academy. ‘It is conceived in a style of impressive grandeur, very much in the manner of Wilson, and strongly indicates a genius of the same comprehensive character,’ the writer continued.26 Membership of the Academy was only open to those who had exhibited in oils, and so it is clear that Girtin’s only painting in the medium was produced in the hope of following in Turner’s footsteps. However, the members did not share the opinions of the critics, and, in the ballot for new Associates of the Academy that took place in early November, Girtin did not attract a single vote. The painting clearly did not find a buyer as it appeared in the sale of the artist’s widow in June 1803, where it was bought by John Girtin, and it seems that it was subsequently destroyed in a fire that damaged his premises in 1816.
By November 1801 Girtin was preparing to leave for Paris, taking with him the monumental canvas of his London panorama and hoping to find a way of displaying it during the short period of peace that opened up during the war with France. The canvas, measuring 1,944 square feet (about 180 square metres), was painted with the aid of professional scene painters in the late summer and autumn of 1801. They worked from two sets of preparatory drawings (figure 34) that Girtin produced from a precarious position on the rooftop of Albion Place, next to Blackfriars Bridge. The recently invented and fashionable phenomenon of the 360-degree panorama had come out of copyright earlier in the year, and Girtin took an early opportunity to move further away from a dependence on traditional forms of patronage by creating a more artistic spectacle than had so far appeared (figure 35) – a ‘connoisseur’s panorama’, as a critic later termed it.27 The first we hear of the painting is in an advertisement for a brief public showing at the rooms of an auctioneer, which announced that the ‘large PICTURE representing an extensive VIEW of LONDON … from Drawings painted by Mr. Thos. Girtin’ was for sale.28 Girtin had run out of money to cover the considerable costs of its production, and it was only with the aid of his brother, John, who lent him £100, that he could undertake the trip to Paris, though he also let it be known that he was travelling for health reasons. 29 What appears to have been a respiratory problem worsened during the course of the year, and it was a seriously ill man who embarked on the Minerva on 20 November, one of the very first Britons to travel to France following the preliminary stage of the Peace of Amiens. The newly married artist missed the birth of his only child, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74), by a few weeks.
Early in 1802, a British newspaper reported that ‘GURTIN has been denied the privilege of exhibiting his Panorama in Paris’, defeated, it seems, by the owner of the French copyright.30 Initially, the artist had no backup plan and, apart from painting one or two Paris scenes, including an extraordinary view of the aftermath of the assassination attempt on the life of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte (figure 36), he fell back on making copies of prints. According to a letter sent to his brother, he subsequently took up the suggestion of his patron Sir George Beaumont (1753–1827) to make a series of drawings of views of Paris and its environs, which he might then reproduce as a set of aquatints on his return to England. The artist stated that he had begun ‘to skech on a Large scale, and to Colour on the spot’, producing views such as Porte Saint-Denis (figure 37), but he switched to detailed outline drawings, which he almost certainly employed the aid of a camera obscura to complete. 31 The majority of the views, concentrating on the Seine river and its banks, adopt a panoramic format; however, in The Watermill above the Bridge at Charenton (TG1890), one of the seven drawings that depict scenes in the environs of Paris, the artist drew freehand with great ‘dispatch’ (figure 38). We know this because Girtin enlisted the aid of an old friend from England, the radical playwright Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809), who acted as translator, guide and support when the physical exertions of gathering views became too much for the artist. Holcroft’s Travels from Hamburg, through Westphalia, Holland, and the Netherlands, to Paris, published in 1804, contains not only a vivid eyewitness account of Girtin’s sketching practice but also, for the first and only time, some of the artist’s personal opinions on art expressed in a lively, jovial manner.32
In the final six months of his life, after his return from Paris at the end of April, Girtin painted only a handful of watercolours, with just three works dated 1802. These include the monumental view Bridgnorth (figure 39) and the elegiac Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening (figure 40), both of which might be thought to fit the image of an artist all too aware of his impending death. In fact, Girtin spent his remaining energies on the two frankly commercial projects that dominated the last years of his short career, seeing his panorama, now titled Eidometropolis, through to completion and an extended London showing, as well as taking the production of the twenty Picturesque Views in Paris far enough that they could be completed by John Girtin for publication later in 1803. The Eidometropolis, which opened on 2 August 1802 before finally closing in April 1803, was the more visible of the projects, attracting enthusiastic press coverage. Although it is by no means clear that Girtin actually painted on the canvas itself, it was acclaimed as his triumph and lauded for ‘its attention to representing the objects of the hue with which they appear in nature’, which ‘by that means, greatly heightened the illusion’. The ‘view towards the east’, as seen in the colour sketch for section four of the 360-degree view (figure 41), particularly appealed, as it ‘appears through a sort of misty medium, arising from the fires of the forges, manufactories, &c. which gradually lessens as we survey the western extremity’.33 Following the discovery of John Girtin’s accounts, we are now also clearer about the way that the Eidometropolis functioned as a business enterprise, and know, for instance, that it was far from a commercial success. An average weekly attendance of only ninety visitors paying their one shilling admittance was not enough to break even.34 Fortunately for John Girtin, whose substantial loan had underwritten the cost of the panorama’s production and installation, the Paris prints proved to be more successful, and his role in securing the addition of aquatint to Girtin’s own soft-ground etchings ensured the success of the publication, as did a timely dedication to George Capel-Coningsby, 5th Earl of Essex (1757–1839), who bought a presentation set of the etchings, hand-coloured by the artist (figure 42).
Girtin died in his rooms above the shop of a frame maker, a ‘Mr Norman’, at 441 The Strand, on 9 November 1802, aged just twenty-seven. He left unfinished at his death a watercolour, St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury (figure 43), a conventionally picturesque scene that bears no hint of impending mortality. Girtin was buried in the churchyard of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, on 17 November. Amongst those present were his patron Sir George Beaumont (1753–1827) and fellow artists Sir William Beechey (1753–1839), Thomas Hearne (1744–1817), Henry Edridge and his celebrated contemporary, Turner. Girtin’s passing was marked by a number of appreciative and well-informed obituaries, a series of posthumous portraits, and, in time, accounts of his work that emphasised his pivotal role in the development of a national school of painting in watercolours. Girtin’s artistic legacy was never in any doubt, but on a more material level his reputation for carelessness about money matters proved more problematic. Girtin thus left no will, though he had suffered poor health for a number of years, and the agreement with his business partner, his brother John, was never formalised. As a result, his widow, Mary Ann Girtin (1781–1843), began proceedings against John in the Court of Chancery in 1804 in an attempt to obtain a greater share of the income from the Eidometropolis and the Paris prints. Although nothing ultimately came of the action, it did force John to detail the full extent of his involvement in the projects that dominated the artist’s last years, in terms of both finance and labour. Ironically, this court case provides more detail about the artist’s career than all of the other surviving contemporary documents combined.
As for Girtin’s character, there are contradictory reports that may in the end say more about the prejudices and preoccupations of the witnesses than about Girtin himself. The Girtin who comes across from Thomas Holcroft’s account of his time in Paris, for instance, was hard working, fond of a joke and more than happy to share his thoughts about his work (figure 44). Those thoughts were essentially practical, and Girtin showed no interest in artistic theory. Another contemporary, William Henry Pyne, also witnessed Girtin at work in his studio, describing a convivial scene where fellow professionals and amateurs alike dropped by to pass the time of day as the artist happily chatted away whilst continuing to paint (figure 45). The flip side to this, as Pyne noted, was a negligence that extended from financial matters to affect his work adversely. His ‘hand was enfeebled by excess’, Pyne claimed, and this resulted from unspecified ‘moral … errors’, perhaps a reference to rumours about the artist’s radical sympathies or to too many nights drinking with notorious characters such as George Morland (1763–1804). Girtin was the victim of a lack of self-control, Pyne continued, and the ‘sensual indulgence of this extraordinary young man, enfeebled his mental powers’.35 This too was the opinion of Edward Dayes, who notoriously used his apprentice’s life as a cautionary example of how young artists should ‘shun the fatal consequences of vice’. Thus, whilst many of the obituaries stipulated that Girtin had died from asthma, others concluded that the artist was the author of his own fate and had ‘trifled away a vigorous constitution’.36
In contrast, other acquaintances of Girtin interpreted his early demise in very different terms. Holcroft was just the first to argue that the death of this ‘genius … was occasioned by … the inconsiderate manner’ in which he sat ‘on the ground to make his designs’, making him an early martyr to the cause of naturalism.37 For others, it was Girtin’s ‘attachment to his profession’ that was stressed, with one obituary noting how he had continued to work on despite his suffering, even calling for his materials on his death bed.38 And for Girtin’s family, who for four successive generations were enthusiastic collectors and historians of the artist’s work, it was this positive image that they cherished over stories of youthful excess. A work such as An Upland Landscape (figure 46), which Thomas Girtin (the artist’s descendant) identified as showing Storiths Heights (near Bolton Abbey) and dating from the very end of the artist’s life, was characterised as the epitome of a Romantic masterpiece; it displayed a longing ‘for the loneliness of boundless spaces’ and was symptomatic of the artist’s realisation ‘that death was not far off’.39 In fact, the view was probably painted a couple of years earlier, and its interpretation as a premonition of death says much about the way that a shortage of biographical information allowed Girtin’s posthumous image to be shaped to fit different conceptions of a landscape artist.
First Regiment of Foot Guards, 1660: Drummer and Private
Windsor Castle, from the River Thames
The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral
The River Dee, near Corwen
1800 - 1805
Portrait of Thomas Girtin
1798 - 1799
The Ogwen Falls
Middleham Village, with the Castle Beyond
The Watermill above the Bridge at Charenton: Pencil Study for Plate Nineteen of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’