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The Touring Artist and the Studio Watercolour, 1794–99

The 1794 Midland Tour with James Moore, Together with Subsequent Watercolours and Studies

The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral

Following the first appearance of Girtin’s work in a public exhibition, at the Royal Academy in 1794, the artist undertook his first substantial trip outside London. Ely Cathedral, from the South East (TG0202) is a more than competent exercise in the style of his master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), but insecurities in the perspective betray the fact that it was based on a sketch by the amateur artist James Moore (1762–99). Perhaps this persuaded the patron to take the seventeen-year-old along with him on his next trip, gathering material for his antiquarian publications. On a tour through the Midland counties, Girtin produced a series of detailed on-the-spot pencil drawings of the significant architectural sites Moore visited, including the cathedrals at Lincoln, Peterborough, Lichfield and Southwell, as well as other medieval monuments at locations such as Crowland and Boston in Lincolnshire and Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon and Kenilworth in Warwickshire. The carefully executed drawings, characterised by their use of a varying and attractive touch and an expressive broken line, record the weathered particulars of Gothic architecture. They were also supplemented by other sketches that include monochrome washes that note the play of light and shade across their surface (figure 1). The majority of the drawings were created with a watercolour commission from Moore in mind, and there is little doubt that it was the patron who chose the subjects for Girtin. Also dating from 1794 are a group of small pencil-and-monochrome studies that may have come from a sketchbook. These include two cloud studies (figure 2) that show every sign of having being worked from nature and suggest that amongst the many sketches from this period that must have been lost were a series of on-the-spot drawings of effects that the young Girtin made to advance his skills as a landscape artist.

A Cloud Study

Figure 2.
TG0186: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Cloud Study, 1794, watercolour on laid paper, 11.4 × 18.5 cm, 4 ½ × 7 ¼ in (sight measurement). Private Collection.


Digital image courtesy of Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive (PA-F03436-0013) (CC BY-NC 4.0).

The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral

The first outcome of Girtin’s tour of the Midlands was a series of large commissions for Moore of the cathedrals they had visited in 1794, led off by two views of the facades at Lichfield and Peterborough (figure 3) together with a more obviously picturesque view of the great Gothic structure at Lincoln, seen from the surrounding town (TG1008). Stylistically, the works do not radically depart from the example of Dayes, with the emphasis placed on the clear depiction of architectural details that collectively give character to a Gothic building as well as a limited cool palette of blues and greys that replicates Dayes’ own. The first studio watercolours made from the 1794 sketches were all aimed at the antiquarian market, which demanded unambiguous views taken from the most advantageous angle, though there is some evidence that Girtin soon sought to introduce greater variety, and even a degree of idiosyncrasy, into his compositions. The Gatehouse, Newark Castle (figure 4), which until recently not surprisingly remained unidentified, departs from the standard depiction of the castle, seen from the river Trent, which Girtin had himself copied from an engraving after Thomas Hearne (1744–1817) (TG0864), and this provided the basis for a second even more unusual view of the ancient gatehouse a few years later (TG0915). In the other example of a later watercolour based on a 1794 sketch, the transformation is even more dramatic. The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral (figure 5), dating from around 1796, saw the composition significantly altered, with a daring cut-off introduced along with a richer and more dramatic palette. All of this suggests that such works were directed at a different type of patron from Moore and his fellow antiquarians.

The 45 or so entries in the section The 1794 Midland Tour with James Moore, Together with Subsequent Watercolours and Studies can be accessed here.

(?) 1794

Ely Cathedral, from the South East

TG0202

1794

Lincoln Cathedral, from the West

TG1008

(?) 1795

Newark Castle, from the River Trent

TG0864

1797 - 1798

The Gatehouse, Newark Castle

TG0915

The 1796 Northern Tour to Yorkshire, the North East and the Scottish Borders: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours

Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet

Girtin’s first independent tour, undertaken in 1796 to Yorkshire, the North East and the Scottish Borders, resulted in a significant number of on-the-spot sketches, which in turn were realised in a series of watercolours for patrons such as Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) and James Moore (1762–99), who effectively bankrolled the substantial cost of touring. Many of the sketches are in the form of simple outline drawings, such as Warkworth Castle, from the River Coquet (figure 6), and gone are the highly detailed architectural studies that were the outcome of the 1794 tour, replaced by a greater emphasis on the landscape setting, as seen in Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (TG1073). Some of the outline drawings, including an interior view of the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory (TG1105), have been enhanced with monochrome washes to record a propitious light effect, and in one case Girtin worked in full colour on a relatively large scale: when sketching the Gothic hermitage at Warkworth (figure 7). This appears to have been the first case of the artist working with some urgency in full colour to capture a transient light effect, which he presumably thought might be appropriate for a major studio watercolour (TG1096). It is important to distinguish this type of study, made quickly in the field, from a series of sketch-like commodities that also begin to appear at this date, such as the small view of Bothal Castle (figure 8). Increasingly typical of Girtin’s sketching practice, it incorporates some of the signs of being coloured on the spot, but it was painted in the studio, created to meet the growing demand for examples of the watercolourist’s less formal works from collectors who, as amateur artists themselves, appreciated the less obvious skills that went into their making.

An Interior View of the Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Church

Girtin showed no fewer than ten watercolours at the 1797 Royal Academy exhibition, nine of which resulted from the trip to the North East in the previous summer. However, the only dated work from 1797 that can definitively be shown to have been amongst the exhibits is An Interior View of the Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Church (figure 9), which was commissioned by Moore. The complex perspectival effect, the dramatic low viewpoint and the bold cut-off, combined with a new richness in the palette, are all features of a mature style that departed increasingly from the influence of Girtin’s master, Edward Dayes (1763–1804). Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear (figure 10) may still be based on a composition type pioneered by Dayes in his Rochester Bridge and Castle (see TG0057 figure 1, but the deeper tones and the more immersive quality of the composition are typical of the works that emerged after the 1796 tour. The new intensity found in Girtin’s compositions from this date has been attributed to the artist’s discovery of the dramatic etchings of the Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78). But, whilst this was undoubtedly the case, the ongoing influence of a British watercolourist from the previous generation, John Robert Cozens (1752–97), should not be underestimated. An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea (TG0662), created at the home of Monro from a lost model by Cozens, provided the compositional basis for spectacular views such as Lindisfarne Castle (TG1113). Moreover, the first appearance of the panoramic format in Girtin’s watercolours that occurs in works derived from the 1796 tour, such as The Village of Jedburgh, with the Abbey Ruins (figure 11), can also be traced to Cozens, as two of the extended coastal views that he created would have been seen by Girtin in the collection of his early patron John Henderson (1764–1843) (see TG1250 figure 1).

The 90 or so entries in the section The 1796 Northern Tour to Yorkshire, the North East and the Scottish Borders: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours can be accessed here.

(?) 1796

Durham Cathedral and Castle, from the River Wear

TG1073

(?) 1796

Lindisfarne: An Interior View of the Ruins of the Priory Church

TG1105

1798

Warkworth Hermitage

TG1096

(?) 1791

Rochester Castle, from the River Medway

TG0057

1794 - 1797

An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea

TG0662

1796 - 1797

Lindisfarne Castle

TG1113

The 1797 West Country Tour: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours

A Street in Weymouth

Girtin’s trip to the West Country in the autumn of 1797 centred around a commission from James Moore (1762–99) to paint an on-the-spot view, The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave (TG1256). The tour appears to have commenced with a journey along the Dorset coast, taking in Weymouth, Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis before a longer period spent in Exeter, and then moving on to north Devon via Plymouth. This detailed view of the cathedral’s interior is entirely uncharacteristic of Girtin’s style of sketching from nature, however. A typical architectural subject, such as A Street in Weymouth (figure 12), thus incorporates clear signs of being created at speed in order to capture a particular light or weather effect. Indeed, the cathedral view was a one-off, and the remainder of the sketches from the tour concentrate on the region’s picturesque ruins and its coast, ranging from rugged cliff-top scenes to views of its harbours and newly fashionable resorts. Aside from a short stretch of the Northumberland coast, studied in the previous year, Girtin’s autumn trip marked his first substantial encounter with the sea. And, whilst the artist showed no great interest in marine subjects, the relationship between the sea and the land provided a series of new challenges that led to some of his most innovative compositions. The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below (figure 13) is just one of a number of sketches that exploited the potential for more extended, panoramic views. Girtin’s encounter with the south coast and its high vantage points was also mediated by his knowledge of the work of John Robert Cozens (1752–97), some of whose extended compositions the artist copied at this date at the home of Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), one example being Fano, on the Adriatic Coast, sketched by the older artist in 1782 (see source image TG0708).

The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below

Figure 13.
TG1250: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Coast of Dorset, with Lyme Regis Below, (?) 1797, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, on a mount of wove paper, 22.2 × 43.3 cm, 8 ¾ × 17 in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.150).


Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art (Public Domain).

A Cliff-Top View, Probably on the Coast of Dorset

Even though a sizeable proportion of the studio watercolours that Girtin completed after the tour depict the picturesque ruins that he encountered, it is the coastal views that stand out. The best known of these, A Cliff-Top View, Probably on the Coast of Dorset (figure 14), is amongst the strangest of Girtin’s works, with its highly unconventional composition and oppressive foreground cutting across the image. Various suggestions have been made about the location, none totally convincing, and perhaps that is the point; the topography is less significant than an exploration of the way in which disparate distances (foreground, middleground and background) and basic elements (water, land and sky) can be related to each other. That said, there is still a nagging doubt that the way in which the perspective does not resolve itself may be a result of a compositional experiment that failed, and the watercolour may therefore be memorable precisely because of its shortcomings. Girtin’s first essays in the panoramic mode display similar uncertainties, particularly in relation to the foreground as the artist dispenses with a reliance on tried-and-tested conventions. A Panoramic View near Lyme Regis (figure 15), one of a pair of scenes of the upland area near the coastal resort, the other being Above Lyme Regis, Looking across Marshwood Vale (TG1254), omits any framing elements, so that the extended view, according more closely to our normal width of vision than a conventional landscape format, appears to have been cut arbitrarily from an even wider vista. Indeed, shown together, the two watercolours would have formed an extended vista covering over half of a full 360-degree panorama, though the scene lacks any of the overt subject interest seen in the artist’s equivalent views of London, such as A Panoramic View of the Thames from the Adelphi Terrace, Section One (TG1378).

A Panoramic View near Lyme Regis

Figure 15.
TG1253: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Panoramic View near Lyme Regis, 1797–98, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, on a mount of wove paper, 24 × 54.9 cm, 9 ½ × 21 ⅝ in. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (5065).


Digital image courtesy of National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (All Rights Reserved).

The 65 or so entries in the section The 1797 West Country Tour: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours can be accessed here.

1797

The Interior of Exeter Cathedral, Looking from the Nave

TG1256

1794 - 1797

Fano, on the Adriatic Coast

TG0708

1797 - 1798

Above Lyme Regis, Looking across Marshwood Vale

TG1254

(?) 1796

A Panoramic View of the Thames from the Adelphi Terrace, Section One: Somerset House to Blackfriars Bridge

TG1378

The 1798 Welsh Tour: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours

The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Girtin rarely, if ever, employed a sketchbook, using instead pieces of paper of all sizes, cut down from larger sheets. Also unusually, only a couple of his on-the-spot studies are dated. We therefore know about the artist’s 1798 trip to North Wales solely from a brief reference in the diary of Joseph Farington (1747–1821) and a single dated sketch, The River Dee, near Corwen (TG1347), and the details of his itinerary have to be worked out from the pencil drawings and colour sketches that he made on his trip. These can be divided into a typical mix of views of the ruined castles of the principality (including Conwy, Denbigh and Caernarfon) and depictions of some of the mountains and waterfalls for which the region was celebrated by a growing number of tourists, who made the still arduous trip through its upland areas. Girtin was not a particularly adventurous or inquisitive traveller, rarely straying from the standard tourist routes, and so it is likely that his depictions of lesser-known sites, such as The Ogwen Falls (TG1329) and The Cain Falls (Pistyll Cain), near Dolgellau (figure 16), were suggested to him by patrons, and that he therefore travelled with some commissions in hand. The former view was realised as an imposing watercolour for his major patron Edward Lascelles (1764–1814), who also commissioned A Mountain View, near Beddgelert (TG1322). Girtin showed Beddgelert to great acclaim at the following year’s Royal Academy exhibition, completing the classic watercolourist’s season: a spring showing for the labours of the winter months in the studio, inspired by the sketches gathered the previous summer. The mountain view near Beddgelert, showing the valley of the river Glaslyn, was already popular amongst the increasing number of artists, amateur and professional, who toured the area, including Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) (see TG1321 figures 1 and 2). However, other subjects sketched by Girtin included some of the first instances of his characteristic desire to seek out new angles on familiar subjects. The Great Hall, Conwy Castle (figure 17) was repeated by a number of artists including Samuel Prout (1783–1852) (see TG1306), but Girtin appears to have been the first to depict this part of the castle, showing it from a low position that enhances the site’s drama.

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle

Figure 17.
TG1305: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Great Hall, Conwy Castle, (?) 1798, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 36.8 × 28.9 cm, 14 ½ × 11 ⅜ in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.63).


Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle

Aside from the two major compositions that were painted for Lascelles (TG1330 and TG1322, both discussed in the next section), the majority of the watercolours of Welsh scenes that Girtin painted are on a more modest scale and represent well-known subjects. Views of the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey (TG1342), of Pont y Pair (the bridge at Betws-y-Coed) (TG1333) and of the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle (figure 18) all exist in multiple versions, suggesting that Girtin had tapped into a lucrative market, and there is a sense that his Welsh scenes did not noticeably extend either the subject’s iconography or his imagination. More significant in terms of the development of Girtin’s career is a watercolour painted in 1799, now titled Pont Seiont, Looking towards Mynydd Mawr (figure 19), which is one of only two Welsh scenes that are dated. This is noteworthy because it means that the on-the-spot sketch on which it is based (TG1327) must date from 1798, and that it and a number of other colour studies cannot have been produced on a later, conjectural trip that earlier Girtin scholars argued took place in 1800.1 The date is also significant because the work was first recorded in the possession of Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), who, as Girtin’s representative acting in a role somewhere between an agent and dealer, sold it to Elizabeth Weddell (1749–1831) at the end of 1801, along with four other watercolours.2 Girtin probably produced a couple of other Welsh views in 1800 for Reynolds to sell on – of Caernarfon (TG1738) and Conwy (TG1739) – but this view appears to have been the first he painted for his dealer. All of this suggests that at the same time as he was producing large works on commission for patrons from the landed classes, the artist was also looking to address other sectors of the market, using a third party to reduce his dependence on traditional forms of patronage.

Pont Seiont, Looking towards Mynydd Mawr (Big Mountain)

Figure 19.
TG1328: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Pont Seiont, Looking towards Mynydd Mawr (Big Mountain), 1799, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, on an original washline mount, 27.7 × 40 cm, 10 ⅞ × 15 ¾ in. Private Collection.


Digital image courtesy of Bridgeman Images (All Rights Reserved).

The almost 60 entries in the section The 1798 Welsh Tour: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours can be accessed here.

1798

The River Dee, near Corwen

TG1347

(?) 1798

The Ogwen Falls

TG1329

1798 - 1799

A Mountain View, near Beddgelert

TG1322

1798 - 1799

The Great Hall, Conwy Castle

TG1306

1798 - 1799

The Ogwen Falls

TG1330

1798 - 1799

A Mountain View, near Beddgelert

TG1322

1798 - 1799

Valle Crucis Abbey, from the River

TG1342

1798 - 1799

Pont y Pair, Betws-y-Coed

TG1333

(?) 1798

Pont Seiont, Looking towards Mynydd Mawr (Big Mountain)

TG1327

1800

Caernarfon Castle, from the East

TG1738

1800

Conwy Castle, from the River Gyffin

TG1739

London and the Home Counties, Together with Miscellaneous Studies and View

It is possible that during the course of Girtin’s tragically short career he made as few as six or seven extended trips outside London, and in comparison with other topographical artists, notably his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), he was not particularly well travelled. At every stage of his career, though, Girtin looked to his native city for subjects, and sometime around 1796 the artist completed a remarkable extended view (over 180 degrees) of London looking south across the Thames from the window of the home at the Adelphi of his patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) (figure 20). The three extended and highly detailed pencil drawings, which have not been seen since they last appeared in public in 1912, included many of the sites visible in the London panorama – the Eidometropolis – that Girtin recorded in 1801–2, though there is no evidence that he had anything like this in mind when he sketched the view from Monro’s window.

A Panoramic View of the Thames from the Adelphi Terrace, Section One: Somerset House to Blackfriars Bridge

Figure 20.
TG1378: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Panoramic View of the Thames from the Adelphi Terrace, Section One: Somerset House to Blackfriars Bridge, (?) 1796, graphite and watercolour on paper, 15.2 × 45.7 cm, 6 × 18 in (approximate measurements). Private Collection (Untraced).


Digital image courtesy of Private Collection (All Rights Reserved).

The Frozen Watermill, from William Cowper's 'The Task'

Some of the trips Girtin made from London could have been accomplished in a day or two, and a number of shorter visits to nearby places (such as Harrow, St Albans and, further afield, Windsor and into Essex) can be identified with varying degrees of confidence. Trips within the immediate vicinity of the capital to villages such as Hampstead may also have been undertaken in the company of fellow artists, as convivial sketching expeditions were a common feature at this date. The Sketching Society, of which Girtin was a member from the middle of 1799 into 1800, operated on different lines, however, with evening meetings convened for the production of drawings from ‘poetick passages’, chosen for the purpose (figure 21).3 Although Girtin is documented as having attended thirteen meetings, only a couple of his drawings have been identified, which gives us some idea of the scale of losses amongst the artist’s sketches; perhaps as few as one in five have survived.

The Interior of St Albans Abbey

Even a short trip from London to somewhere like St Albans was probably undertaken with a commission for a large watercolour in hand, and the extra labour involved in the figures in an interior view of the abbey church (figure 22), combined with the fact that it was exhibited at the 1797 exhibition of the Royal Academy, would seem to point to this being the case here. In fact, none of Girtin’s exhibits were marked as being for sale, and it seems that his most impressive watercolours were sent to the exhibition as an encouragement to further patronage. London itself was still home to a rich medieval heritage at this date, though as with the ruins of the old Savoy Palace on the banks of the Thames, parts of this were very much under threat. The demolition of the sixteenth-century Leathersellers’ Hall had revealed a fine thirteenth-century vaulted crypt, part of an ancient Benedictine nunnery, and so what we see in Girtin’s view (figure 23) is an early example of rescue archaeology, with the demolition team about to move in as an artist is shown recording the ancient remains before they disappear.

London: The Interior of the Ruins of the Leathersellers’ Hall

At about this time, around 1799, Girtin appears to have undertaken a short trip into Essex to record the details of various farms for a prosperous London goldsmith, Phineas Borrett (1756–1843), who had bought the properties, including Turver’s Farm at Wimbish, as an investment (TG1414). The farm views, closer in appearance to picturesque compositions than commissioned views, led to other Essex scenes, including the even more unconventional A Mill in Essex (figure 24), which, if it was the work shown with that title at the Royal Academy in 1799, helps to explain the artist’s growing reputation for a wilful disregard for the norms of artistic propriety. The uncompromising composition, with its radical cut-off and its generous proportions out of keeping with its humble subject, make for an almost primitive feel that encouraged even supportive critics to warn against the artist’s evident ‘neglect and carelessness’.4 Even more extraordinary is the fact that the artist was happy to incorporate the unsightly appearance of a drying fold in an exhibited work. The vertical crease seen in the centre, made more prominent by the watercolour’s faded condition, was the result of the manufacturing process of the low-grade and utilitarian cartridge and wrapping papers that Girtin employed from around 1797–98 onwards.

A Mill in Essex

Figure 24.
TG1416: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Mill in Essex, (?) 1799, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 43.2 × 60.3 cm, 17 × 23 ¾ in. Private Collection, Norfolk (I/E/15).


Digital image courtesy of Bridgeman Images (All Rights Reserved).

The 95 or so entries in the section London and the Home Counties, Together with Miscellaneous Studies and Views can be accessed here.

(?) 1799

Turver’s Farm, Wimbish

TG1414

Footnotes

  1. 1 Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.40 and 183
  2. 2 Reynolds, Letter, 1803. Details of Reynolds' role in the sale of Girtin's work are contained in two letters dating from 1801 and 1803 which are transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 4 and 1803 – Item 3).
  3. 3 From an inscription on the back of a drawing by François Louis Thomas Francia (1772–1839) – Landscape Composition: Moonlight (Victoria and Albert Museum, London (477–1883)). The inscription is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1799 – Item 4) together with extensive excerpts from the Society’s Minute Book (1799 – Item 5).
  4. 4 Whitehall Evening Post, 31 May – 2 June 1798

Imprint

Imprint
Article title
The Touring Artist and the Studio Watercolour, 1794–99
Date
04/10/2021
Cite as
Greg Smith, "The Touring Artist and the Studio Watercolour, 1794–99--", Thomas Girtin (1775–1802): An Online Catalogue, Archive and Introduction to the Artist, (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2022)

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