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Thomas Girtin (Southwark 1775 – 1802 London)

Richmond Castle and Town from the South-East


Watercolour
: 14 3/4 x 19 1/2 in. (37.5 x 49.5 cm)

Collections: C.J.Pooley; Thomas Ashton; by descent to Miss Eleanor Lupton, Roundhay, Leeds; from her to the present owner.

Exhibited: Burlington Fine Arts Club, The Works of Thomas Girtin, 1875 (21, lent by C.J.Pooley); Harewood House, Yorkshire, Thomas Girtin – Genius in the North, 1999 (35, reproduced in colour)

Literature: Thomas Girtin and David Loshak, The Art of Thomas Girtin, 1954, p.165, no.235; David Hill, Thomas Girtin – Genius of the North, 1999, Harewood House exhibition catalogue pp. 54 – 55.

Dated: This watercolour is dated 1797-8 by Girtin and Loshak; Hill prefers 1796-7 (see Literature above). Other Richmond subjects by Thomas Girtin include a watercolour at Liverpool University and a pencil study for that composition, both of which are assigned by Girtin and Loshak to 1798 (G & L 252 (i) and (ii).


Engraved: A slight variant of our watercolour was engraved in the Copper Plate Magazine, and published on November 1st 1797 as plate clxv. In this engraving, the reflection of the Castle was removed.


Biography: Thomas Girtin lived a short, but influential life; he died aged twenty-seven of pulmonary disease, however, he irrevocably changed the direction of English watercolour painting by abandoning the Claudean framework. He revolutionized this medium by introducing several technical innovations, which his friend and competitor, Joseph Mallord William Turner (London 1775 – 1851 London), capitalised upon during his own productive lifetime. Whether or not Turner made the now famous remark: ‘Had Girtin lived, I would have starved’ or declared to the collector – Chambers Hall that - he would have given one of his little fingers to have made a drawing like Girtin’s White House at Chelsea (1800, London, Tate), Turner greatly respected and admired Tom Girtin’s talent. He bridged the gap between the 18th century stained drawing and the 19th century watercolour. The White House demonstrates this transition and shows the poetic spirit which informs his work.

Girtin first took drawing lessons from a Mr Fisher and then was apprenticed to the good artist Edward Dayes (London 1763 – 1804 London). Girtin met Turner at the studio, but Dayes was a difficult character and their relationship was stormy; sadly, Dayes committed suicide in 1804. Girtin also visited John Henderson (1764 – 1843) and Dr.Monro’s (1759 – 1833) “drawing academy” (circa 1793, Adelphi Terrace, the Adam Brothers’ building, south of the Strand). These were evening classes, and Girtin and Turner were concerned with experimentation, particularly the depiction of gradation. Girtin is thought to have discovered how to “wipe out lights” in a watercolour, when he accidentally spilled water on a drawing and then mopped it up with a handkerchief; the areas where the water had lain were left white, the colours removed. Girtin favoured an absorbent off-white cartridge paper and abandoned the traditional monochromatic under painting for a bolder, looser handling, with broad washes of strong colour. Thus, the 18th century days of the tinted drawing ended and the pure 19th century watercolour became the Girtin-Turner phenomenon.
Throughout his life, the topographical artist – Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto (Venice 1697 – 1768 Venice) was a strong influence on Girtin; at Monro’s, he copied many of Canaletto’s drawings, as well as those by Piranesi, Ricci, Hearne, Malton, Morland and Wilson.

In 1792 Girtin may have visited Scotland with the antiquarian artist James Moore (1762 – 1799 London) and in 1794, they visited Peterborough, Lincoln, Warwick and Lichfield. In this year he first exhibited at the R.A. with a view of Ely Minster. In 1795 they both travelled to the Cinques Ports. In 1796 he toured the North and borders and in 1798 he resided at Harewood House. In 1799 he co-founded a sketching club – The Brothers – and in 1800 he married the daughter of the goldsmith Phineos Borrett. They moved to Hyde Park and became neighbours of Paul Sandby (Nottingham 1725 – 1809 London). In this year he is also thought to have returned to the North once more.
In 1801-2, he visited Paris on doctor’s orders and made a series of soft-ground etchings of views of the city. These were published posthumously in 1803. On his return from France, he resumed work on a large-scale panorama of London – The Eidometropolis – which although exhibited in 1802, is now lost. Sketches are extant in the British Museum. He died at his studio in the Strand, November 1802.

His patrons included: Lords Essex, Hardwicke and Mulgrave, Sir Beaumont, and the Hon. Spencer Cowper.

Examples: B.M.; V.A.M.; Aberdeen A.G.; Ashmoleon; Birmingham City A.G.; Blackburn A.G.; Brighton A.G.; Bowes Mus., Durham; Fitzwilliam; Glasgow A.G.; N.G.; Ireland; Leeds City A.G.; Leicester A.G.; Usher A.G.; Lincoln; City A.G., Manchester; N.G., Scotland; Laing A.G., Newcastle; Newport A.G.; Portsmouth City Mus.

Bibliography: A.Bailey: Standing In the Sun,1997. H.L.Mallalieu: Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists,1986. P & L Murray: Art & Artists,1971. S.Redgrave: Dictionary Of Artists of the English School,1874.