Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Girtin’s great London contemporary, was born two months after him in April 1775 and just a few kilometres away, though they were to follow rather different paths into the profession. Whilst Girtin entered into an apprenticeship with Edward Dayes (1763–1804) in 1789, Turner began his association with the Royal Academy, entering the Schools in the same year, and their paths do not seem to have crossed until 1794. Accounts of the artists’ early lives suggesting that both studied perspective with Thomas Malton the Younger (1748–1804) or that they coloured prints for John Raphael Smith (1752–1812) side by side are unsubstantiated and reflect the imaginative approach to facts favoured by nineteenth-century artist biographers. Turner’s work with Girtin at the Adelphi home of their mutual patron Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) is well documented, however. The diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821) noted in 1798 how ‘Turner & Girtin told us they had been employed by Dr. Monro 3 years to draw at his house in the evenings. They went at 6 and staid till Ten. Girtin drew in outlines and Turner washed in the effects. They were chiefly employed in copying the outlines or unfinished drawings of Cozens &c &c. of which Copies they made finished drawings. Dr. Monro allowed Turner 3s. 6d each night. – Girtin did not say what He had’ (Farington, Diary, 12 November 1798). The resulting four hundred or so copies or realisations after the outlines and tracings of John Robert Cozens (1752–97), John Henderson (1764–1843) and Dayes are predominantly in monochrome and are not spectacular works of art. However, they provided a useful source of income and collectively they amount to one of the most extensive collaborations between major artists of any period, and an experience that inevitably coloured both artists’ approach to landscape painting during their careers.

Not surprisingly, given Girtin and Turner’s shared geographical and class background – both sons of members of the urban artisanal classes – early biographers suggested that the two young artists studied from nature together, exploring the banks of their beloved river Thames. Again there is no evidence to substantiate this, nor indeed is there any striking proof that they ever sketched side by side, even within the picturesque ruins of the Adelphi. Inevitably, given that initially, at least, they targeted the same market for topographical views, the two artists did produce numerous views of the same subjects following similar tours of the nation’s picturesque regions, and on at least one occasion there is evidence that they conferred. As David Hill has shown, Turner’s 1797 tour of the north-eastern counties and the Scottish Borders was informed by Girtin’s 1796 trip to the region, and his drawings covered many of the same sites shown from similar viewpoints, including Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill (TG1635) and at least four views in York (such as TG1655) (Hill, 1996, pp.143–50).

Turner and Girtin may have taken different career paths, but for at least a couple of years around 1793–94 their watercolours were very close stylistically. Training at the Royal Academy at this date was initially restricted to drawing from plaster casts of antique sculpture and only later were students allowed to draw from live models. In search of instruction in the art of painting landscape in watercolours, therefore, the young Turner had no alternative but to turn to the same models studied by Girtin, namely his master, Edward Dayes, and Michael Rooker (1746–1801). The Dover Mail, Dover Castle in the Distance (TG0075) is just one of a number of works long attributed to Turner but now given to Girtin – though, as with a number of other examples, a final consensus about the authorship has not yet been reached. Questions over the attribution of the artists’ earliest works have no doubt been compounded by their collaborative work together at the home of Monro; however, although contemporary critics initially grouped the two artists together as the twin originators of a new approach to the landscape watercolour, this quickly gave way to a growing awareness of their individual qualities. This often has a partisan element, with one critic in 1798 noting that though ‘Mr. GIRTIN’S Drawings … appear to be formed on the style of TURNER … it is evident that the Artist is careless in the detail and finishing’, whilst another writer thought that his works, whilst ‘not so softened as Turner’s … display so much daring and vigorous execution, that a sedulous attention to the finishing would perhaps be injurious to the effect’ (Monthly Mirror, July 1798; St. James’s Chronicle, 20 – 23 May 1797). Similar thinking lay behind the comments of two of Girtin’s patrons, ‘Mr Lascelles’ (Edward Lascelles (1764–1814)) and ‘Lady Sutherland’ (Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, later Duchess of Sutherland (1765–1839)), who according to Farington were ‘disposed to set up Girtin against Turner – who they say effects his purpose by industry – the former more genius – Turner finishes too much’ (Farington, Diary, 9 February 1799). The idea that Girtin and Turner were not just opposites but active rivals culminated with the critical response to Girtin’s sole oil painting, the lost view of Bolton Bridge in Yorkshire (TG1687), which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801. ‘There seems to be a sort of competition between this artist and Mr. Turner’, wrote the critic of the London Courier, but ‘in our opinion … Mr. Girtin seems to tread with a firm step in the path which leads to the higher excellencies of the art. He is not less bold in his portraits of nature, and he is more distinct than his ingenious rival’ (London Courier, 2 May 1801).

Sentiments such as this were no doubt behind the apocryphal statement attributed to Turner by his early biographer, Walter Thornbury (1828–76), to the effect that if ‘Tom Girtin had lived I should have starved’ (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, p.393). However, although it is unlikely that this was anything more than an expression of what Thornbury thought Turner ought to have said, and despite the artists’ very different characters, there is no doubt that Turner held his collaborator in the highest esteem even if his claim to have prized Girtin’s ‘White House at Chelsea’ (Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1740)), above even his own works, was again embroidered if not actually fabricated (The Examiner, 22 May 1875, p.22). Turner attended Girtin’s funeral, bought a proof set of the Paris aquatints, touched on and corrected the proofs of the mezzotints engraved after his watercolours (including Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (see the second print after TG1740)) and acquired more than 150 of the works the two artists collaborated on at the home of Monro, as well as a substantial number of Girtin’s pencil sketches and small watercolours on card. Moreover, in the sketches and watercolours that Turner produced later in his career, there are numerous echoes of Girtin’s work; examples include the views Turner took on the river Seine, such as St Germain en Laye (Tate, Turner Bequest, CCLIX 122) and a late sketch of a lake scene that he inscribed ‘Girtin White House’ (Tate, Turner Bequest, CCCXLII 66).


Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill


1796 - 1797

York: Pavement, Looking towards All Saints


1791 - 1792

The Dover Mail, Dover Castle in the Distance


(?) 1801

Bolton Bridge



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)



Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)


Related works

Too many related records to show