Thomas Girtin (1775–1802): An Online Catalogue, Archive and Introduction to the Artist by Greg Smith is published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
The task of collating this online catalogue of the work of the great watercolour artist Thomas Girtin grew out of my work on the bicentenary exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2002. The catalogue enlarges upon the pioneering research of Thomas Girtin (1874–1960), who published a summary catalogue of his great-grandfather’s work in a monograph that he wrote with David Loshak (Girtin and Loshak, 1954) (figure 1). He and his son, Tom Girtin (1913–94), created an extensive archive, now housed in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and this has provided a core around which a wealth of new research has been gathered (Girtin Archive). Developments in digital searching, in particular, have led to the discovery of numerous new works and the correct identification of many of Girtin’s subjects, as well as their sources in the work of other artists. At the same time, the capacity associated with an online publication has allowed for the inclusion of a range of archival discoveries, which have resulted in a more complete picture of the watercolourist’s short but creative and innovative career.
One of the key objectives of the site is to provide a basic introduction to the artist and his works for the non-specialist. A first point of contact for many will therefore be the short illustrated Biography. Apart from the works themselves, Girtin’s career is marked by relatively few documentary details, leading, in the past, to an all-too-speculative approach to his life story. New discoveries mean that we now have a more secure basis for understanding the artist and the trajectory of his career, and the biography summarises these conclusions. In turn, the Documents section of the Archive makes available on a year by year basis all of the material from which the biography was assembled (figure 2), including the oldest (often semi-fictionalised) accounts.
At the heart of the site are approximately 1,550 illustrated entries that catalogue all of the pencil sketches and watercolours made by Girtin in his short but highly productive career, together with the prints executed after his work. These include the substantial body of work Girtin produced in collaboration with his almost exact contemporary, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). In addition to the standard catalogue information, listed in note form, each entry includes an extended text, 'About This Work', which will typically discuss the subject, the work’s condition and its place within Girtin’s practice, together with other details such as its relationship with comparable watercolours by the artist’s contemporaries and, where relevant, its public reception.
The majority of the works included in the catalogue are either documented as being by Girtin or are, on stylistic grounds, demonstrably by the artist. Others, however, are less clear; in such cases, rather than using vague terms such as ‘manner of’, ‘school of’ or ‘follower of’, I have simply inserted a question mark in front of the artist’s name to signify that there is some doubt about the attribution. The nature of this doubt, together with my current opinion on the status of the work, is then addressed in the ‘About This Work’ part of the catalogue entry. The question mark is my way of signalling that the attribution of a work is under discussion. In general, I have not catalogued works separately that are obviously not by Girtin, the exception being a few examples that have consistently been attributed to the artist in the past and, in some cases, are still erroneously said to be by him. Otherwise, the bulk of the copies and works that have been described, for one reason or another, as possibly being by the artist, are discussed in passing in the text of a related drawing about which there is no doubt about the authorship. Finally, there is a class of work that, though it has been linked with the artist, is so poor that I have not referred to it in any of the entries. There is no way of signalling this without giving undue notice to drawings that do not justify attention, and so I have merely recorded their basic details in the Exhibitions section of the Archive where all of the sales at which Girtin's works appeared are listed by date.
The date of each work is given in the form ‘1800’ if a drawing is inscribed by the artist, otherwise ‘(?) 1800’ if it can be dated to a particular year with a degree of certainty, with the reasons given in the ‘About This Work’ field. More often than not, especially where there is only the style of the work to go on, the date is stated in the form of a two-year period, such as ‘1800 – 1801’, which is the sort of range that I think can reasonably be deduced from visual evidence alone. The exceptions are the numerous collaborations that Girtin and Turner produced at the home of their mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), catalogued in Section 2 – Thomas Monro and John Henderson: Making Creative Copies, 1794–98, which are all listed as ‘1794 – 1797’ since, as far as I can determine, there was no discernible development across the three winters during which the artists were engaged in their work copying outline drawings for the patron.
Until 1800 only a handful of Girtin’s drawings are dated – certainly an insufficient number, I believe, to sustain the division of a very short professional career into the ‘six phases’ that are at the heart of Girtin and Loshak’s pioneering catalogue. I make no apologies for not attempting to trace the artist’s ‘stylistic development’ in such detail, taking the view that in the case of a short-lived artist with few documentary points of reference, if proper attention is given to establishing the function, subject and status of a work, the date tends to look after itself.
Only a handful of Girtin’s original titles have survived, and they are typically vague and sometimes inaccurate in recording the location of a subject. I have therefore taken the opportunity to bring the titles up to date, giving the modern spelling of locations and making sure that the same compositions are listed consistently. Occasionally, traditional and inaccurate titles have been added in brackets, and older variants have been recorded in the catalogue entries so that works may be traced using the Search function.
Imperial measurements are an absurd anachronism, but the paper that Girtin used was measured in inches, so it is important to record the dimensions of his works in both formats. Height is given before width.
In addition to looking at works individually, this site is structured around a chronological survey of Girtin’s career. Images of the 1,550-plus works are organised into six sections and then subdivided further by subject, each with its own introduction. They are:
- Apprenticeship and Early Work for the Antiquarian Market, 1790–95
- Thomas Monro and John Henderson: Making Creative Copies, 1794–98
- Monro School Copies: Drawings Made with Joseph Mallord William Turner from the Sketches of John Robert Cozens’ First Trip to the Continent, 1776–79
- Monro School Copies: Italian Views after Drawings by John Robert Cozens Made on His Second Italian Trip, 1782–83
- Monro School Copies: British Views, Including Works after the Outlines of John Henderson
- Copies after Professional Artists: British and Continental Masters
- The Touring Artist and the Studio Watercolour, 1794–99
- The 1794 Midland Tour with James Moore, Together with Subsequent Watercolours and Studies
- The 1796 Northern Tour to Yorkshire, the North East and the Scottish Borders: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours
- The 1797 West Country Tour: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours
- The 1798 Welsh Tour: Sketches and Subsequent Watercolours
- London and the Home Counties, Together with Miscellaneous Studies and Views
- Country House Portraits and the Patronage of the Gentry
- Later Tours and Working on the Open Market, 1800–02
- Paris and London, 1801–02
Sales catalogues have only been extensively illustrated in recent years and since it has not been possible to identify a large proportion of the works listed as by Girtin in early auctions particular attention has been placed on recording all of the available details (figure 3 and 4). The substantial list of sales at which Girtin’s work has appeared, dating from 1791 to the present day, was envisaged as a separate section of the Archive, but they have now been incorporated into the larger field of public Exhibitions where they are linked, where possible, to the provenance field of the catalogue entries. More recent catalogues often contain a wealth of information, and in the interests of brevity I have not therefore recorded details that are repeated in the catalogue entries.
The documentary evidence used to assemble a picture of Girtin’s practice as an artist, as well as to tell the story of his life, is patchy but not inconsequential. The Documents section includes transcripts of the relevant manuscript material together with all of the accounts of the artist published in the nineteenth century, including those by writers who witnessed Girtin at work. The section is organised chronologically with each year beginning with a list of Girtin’s dated works, the prints published after his watercolours, and the appearance of his works in sales and public exhibitions so that users can follow the course of the artist’s career in detail (figure 5). The section as a whole is a something of a mix as it also also includes a mass of material relating to the collectors of Girtin’s works, including the Girtin family, as well as records of the early sales of Girtin’s works by two of the most important dealers in British watercolours and drawings, J. Palser & Sons and Thos. Agnew & Sons.
The list of Exhibitions only includes those that featured Girtin’s works, and these are identified wherever possible. No distinction is made between exhibitions organised by museums and galleries, on the one hand, and selling shows put on by commercial dealers and by auction houses.
The 120 or so Biographies included here are listed in alphabetical order, featuring those artists and patrons with whom Girtin had direct contact, and also his immediate family and more recent collectors and historians who have added significantly to our knowledge about his work.
A separate Bibliography, divided into works published before 1850 and after, is also included. Many of the publications refer to the artist’s career and to specific works but others are included in the interests of providing a comprehensive survey of the literature on the art of watercolour during the period of Girtin’s life.
Search and Discover
Every catalogue entry contains links that allow exploration of related works by date, subject and type, as well as providing details on my sources via references to the various archival sections. There is also a search facility that enables users to make the most of the several thousand images on the site, together with the more than a million words of text across the catalogue entries and the archival sections detailing the Bibliography, Biographies, Documents, and Exhibitions. With the exception of the Documents, every element of the site is extensively linked, but it is the Search function that allows it as a whole to be used as more than a simple catalogue of Girtin’s works.
The great advantage of a website over a print publication is that it can be updated and corrected quickly, in order to take advantage of our expanding knowledge. Even so, the site, as it stands, doubtless contains errors and omissions that call out to be amended. Users who have corrections or more up-to-date information about any of the works included are invited to use the Feedback Form included with each of the catalogue entries. Similarly, please let us know about anything we have missed.
Dr Greg Smith is an independent art historian who has published extensively on the history of British watercolours and watercolourists, as well as landscape artists working in Italy. He has also worked as a curator at The Whitworth, University of Manchester, the Design Museum, London, and the Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham where he organised exhibitions on the work of Walter Crane (The Whitworth), Thomas Jones (National Museum of Wales) and Thomas Fearnley (Barber Institute of Fine Art). As Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Greg has completed a five-year online project: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802): An Online Catalogue, Archive and Introduction to the Artist (2017–23). He is also the author of The Emergence of the Professional Watercolourist: Contentions and Alliances in the Artistic Domain, 1760–1824, the first volume in a social history of watercolours. The second, an examination of watercolour as a multi-faceted commodity, will focus on the place of Joseph Mallord William Turner within a competitive and expanding art market. Greg was the lead curator for the Girtin bicentenary exhibition organised by Tate in 2002 and he wrote and edited the catalogue, Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour.
Although I have been working on this online catalogue only since 2017, my interest in the work of Thomas Girtin goes back much further – specifically, to my first gallery post, assisting the late Francis Hawcroft at The Whitworth in Manchester. Working with the Whitworth’s collection, completing my doctorate under the supervision of David Solkin and organising the bicentenary Girtin exhibition at Tate Britain in 2002 with Anne Lyles formed the bedrock of this publication, and I wish to thank both David and Annie for their help and support over the years, and indeed David again for proposing the idea of a Girtin online catalogue. Susan Morris and Peter Bower were also closely involved in the 2002 exhibition, and their contribution continues to be of enormous benefit to my work on Girtin. I would also like to single out for particular thanks Lynda McLeod for allowing me access to the archive at Christie’s, Kim Sloan of the British Museum, Ian Warrell for advice on the connection between Girtin and Turner, Tim Wilcox for help with works from the Bacon collection, and Scott Wilcox of the Yale Center for British Art for his help and encouragement. Closer to home, and on a more personal note, I wish to put on record my profoundest gratitude to my stepson, Michael Arnold, and his wife, Magda Zajac; to my mother, Doreen Smith; and above all to my wife, Liz Hall. I am not sure whether it is possible to dedicate a website to her, but if it is not, too bad, because I have just done it! And then there is everyone at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Thanks so much to Mark Hallett for taking up the idea of a Girtin site and supporting it through to completion; Maisoon Rehani for locating the vast number of images we have used; to Jennifer Camilleri for her work on the picture research; Emily Lees for looking after the even larger number of words; Tom Scutt for masterminding the technical aspects of the project; and, finally, the librarians and archivists at the Centre, Charlotte Brunskill, Anthony Day, Emma Floyd, Natasha Held and Jenny Hill. However, my greatest debt of gratitude is to Hazel Bird of Wordstitch Editorial, who has had the unenviable Herculean task of wrestling sense from an overlong and highly complex text. Many thanks to her for all her hard work and patience.
Thanks, in alphabetical order, are also due to the following, with apologies to anyone who has been omitted: Sir Nicholas Bacon, Elizabeth Barker, Shelley Bennett (Huntington Art Gallery), Susan Bennett, Carol Blackett-Ord, Laura Claveria (Leeds Art Gallery), Andrew Clayton-Payne, Ann Compton (Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool University), Amy Concannon (Tate Britain), Louisa Conner (Eton College), Caroline Corbeau-Parsons (Tate Britain), Jeff Cowton (Wordsworth Museum), Harriet Drummond (Christie’s), Mark Evans (Victoria and Albert Museum), Peter Goodchild, Matthew Hargraves (Yale Center for British Art), Colin Harrison (Ashmolean Museum), David Hill, Henry Holland-Hibbert; Imogen Holmes-Roe (The Whitworth, University of Manchester), the late Ralph Hyde, Edward Impey (Royal Armouries), Michael C. Jaye, Paul Joyner (National Library of Wales), Peter Kaufmann, Gabriele Koller, Lowell Libson, James Mackinnon, Constance McPhee (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Corinne Miller, Jane Munro (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), Charles Nugent, Sheila O’Connell, Victoria Osborne (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), Susan Palmer (Sir John Soane’s Museum), Guy Peppiatt, Jessie Petheram (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), Tanja Pirsig-Marshall, Angela Roche (British Museum), Lady Ruth Runciman, Frances Sands (Sir John Soane’s Museum), the late Eric Shanes, Lilja Sigurðardóttir (National Museum, Iceland), Colin Simpson (Williamson Art Gallery and Museum), Rachel Sloan (Courtauld Institute Gallery), Susan Sloman, Paul Spencer-Longhurst (Paul Mellon Centre), Richard Stephens, Ann Sumner, Julia Walton (Old Speech Room Gallery, Harrow School), Catherine Willson (Hereford Museum and Art Gallery), Andrew Wilton, Katherine Wodehouse (Ashmolean Museum), Karen Wraith (The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove), the late Andrew Wyld and Roderick Zinsser.