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Works Thomas Girtin



Primary Image: TG1755: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Bridgnorth, 1802, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 61.4 × 93.9 cm, 24 ⅛ × 37 in. British Museum, London (1849,0609.75).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Print after: Sir Frank Short (1857–1945), etching, 'Bridgnorth' for The Portfolio, vol.19, 1888, 18.2 × 26 cm, 7 ⅛ × 10 ¼ in. British Museum, London (1931,0613.162).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Bridgnorth
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
61.4 × 93.9 cm, 24 ⅛ × 37 in

‘Girtin 1802’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Large Framed Work; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Shropshire View; The Country Town

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and 2018


William Leader (1767–1828) (lent to SPWC, 1823); John Temple Leader (1810–1903); his sale, probably Christie’s, 18 March 1843, lot 58 as 'View of the Old Bridge at Gloucester - evening scene'; bought by Chambers Hall (1786–1855), £16; presented to the Museum, 1849

Exhibition History

SPWC, 1823, no.203 as ’Bridgenorth’; London, 1985, no.84; London, 1993, no.152; London, 2002, no.179


Kitton, 1887, p.364; Monkhouse, 1890, pp.45–46; Binyon, 1898–1907, no.56; Binyon, 1900, p.19; Sparrow, 1902, p.82; Gibson, 1916, p.220; Stokes, 1922, p.75; Davies, 1924, p.74, pl.95; Binyon, 1933, p.107; Hardie, 1934, p.11; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.88–89; Finley, 1965, p.119; Herrmann, 2000, p.43

About this Work

John Walker (active 1776–1802), after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), etching and engraving, 'Bridgenorth' for <i>The Copper-Plate Magazine</i>, vol.2, no.44, pl.88, 1 August 1795, 14.9 × 20.2 cm, 5 ⅞ × 8 in. British Museum, London (1862,0712.898).

This powerful watercolour, one of only a handful of dated works from the last months of Girtin’s life, shows the old Severn Bridge at Bridgnorth in Shropshire, seen in the light of dawn. Bridgnorth is on the main route between London and North Wales, and many artists both amateur and professional, including Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) (see figure 1), John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) (see TG1357 figure 2) and Joseph Farington (1747–1821) (see TG1357 figure 1), stopped to sketch the picturesque bridge with its old toll house and cottage. This large watercolour departs from the standard representation of the town, however, in order to create a more monumental and sublime image, and in this way Girtin eschewed his own characteristic approach to urban river scenes as seen in The Ouse Bridge, York (TG1649). The key compositional difference is established in the original on-the-spot pencil drawing (TG1357), where Girtin adopts a low and close viewpoint at an angle to the bridge. This means that both the bridge itself and the modestly proportioned house upon it loom above us, and the main subject is not relegated to the middle ground. This close viewpoint leads to uncomfortable effects such as the apparently inconsistent level of the water, but this is not a perspectival error so much as one of the consequences of the radical foreshortening caused by the artist’s adopted position. This effect is also seen in other earlier architectural subjects, such as Bamburgh Castle (TG1104), and it must be remembered that the pencil sketch on which this work is based may date from as early as 1798. This was about the time that Girtin was copying a number of etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78), including The Arch of Janus (see source image TG0885), and the monumental central vertical accent here reflects his influence as well as the application to a humble picturesque structure of a principle hitherto employed to convey the grandeur of ancient monuments. As a number of writers have commented, Girtin may also have been influenced by the colouring of the great Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–69), and specifically his The Mill (see TG1451 figure 1), which the young artist may even have seen during its exhibition in London in 1793–94 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.87–88; Wilcox, 1993, pp.16–17). The sombre tonality (dominated by greys, blues and deep browns), the dark sky giving way to an area of dim light and the jagged silhouette of the buildings all have parallels in Rembrandt’s work, helping to reinforce the drama of the composition.

Such a large and imposing work such as Bridgnorth was surely produced as a commission and equally that it was designed to be close-framed in the same way as the four similarly sized views of Harewood House and surrounding sites that Girtin produced for Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) in 1801 (such as TG1548). The artist charged twenty guineas for each, and, if anything, the densely worked washes of colour seen here, which give the watercolour the depth and resonance of an oil painting, probably required even more labour; such a major undertaking was not something that could have been embarked on without first securing a wealthy buyer. The first owner of the watercolour appears to have been William Leader (1767–1828), who is known to have acquired other works by the artist, but it has not been possible to determine whether he actually commissioned the Bridgnorth view and, if so, whether he had a personal interest in the subject, as Lascelles did with the works produced for him. This is of some interest because it has been suggested that Girtin went to an uncharacteristic deal of trouble to get the architectural details correct, going as far as to update the pencil drawing that he presumably made during the course of his visit to North Wales in 1798 (TG1357) so as to take into account recent changes to the bridge, including the removal of the toll house seen in the engraving after Turner’s view (published in 1794) (see figure 1). Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak suggest that Girtin updated his drawing in 1802 in preparation for the watercolour on the grounds that the demolition work on the bridge is said to have been carried out in 1801 (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.169). However, for reasons that I discuss at length in the catalogue entry for the drawing, I now believe that this took place as early as 1797 and that a local historian quoted by the earlier authors used Girtin’s 1802 watercolour to fix the date of the work to the bridge, rather than consulting the documentary sources. If this was indeed the case, then it seems that Girtin recognised the dramatic potential of Bridgnorth as a subject but had to wait for four years to find a patron interested in financing a work on a suitable scale.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as a white laid writing paper by an unknown English manufacturer, worked on the artist’s favoured wireside, where the surface is impressed with the lines of the mould used in its manufacture (Smith, 2002b, p.230; Bower, Report). The work is in good condition, though a series of small tears around the edges may have been the result of the drawing having originally been stretched on a wooden support, as was commonly the case with large watercolours framed for display.


The Ouse Bridge, York


(?) 1798

The Old Severn Bridge at Bridgnorth


1798 - 1799

Bamburgh Castle


1799 - 1800

The Arch of Janus


(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South East


(?) 1798

The Old Severn Bridge at Bridgnorth


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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