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Works Thomas Girtin

On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey

1800 - 1801

Primary Image: TG1554: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey, 1800–01, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 47 × 61.6 cm, 18 ½ × 24 ¼ in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (FA.380).

Photo courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • On the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey
1800 - 1801
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
47 × 61.6 cm, 18 ½ × 24 ¼ in
Object Type
Commissioned from Thomas Girtin; Large Framed Work; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
River Scenery; Yorkshire View

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
270 as 'On the Wharfe'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Edward Lascelles (1764–1814); then by descent to Henry Lascelles, 4th Earl of Harewood (1824–92); his sale, Christie’s 1 May 1858, lot 53, as 'A View on the Wharf'; bought by Fraser, 14 ½ gns; bought by the Museum

Exhibition History

Manchester, 1975, no.42; Trento, 1993, no.8; Harewood, 1999, no.19


Redgrave and Redgrave, 1866, vol.1, p.394; Redgrave, 1877, p.127; Monkhouse, 1879, pp.26–27; Monkhouse, 1890, p.44; Armstrong, 1902, p.37; Finberg, 1905, p.58; Davies, 1924, p.29, pl.17; V&A, 1927, p.230 as 'On the Wharfe, Yorkshire'; Binyon, 1931, p.114; Wilenski, 1933, p.181, p.206; Hardie, 1934, p.5; Pratt, 1944, pp.109–10; Mayne, 1949, p.97; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.65; Lemaître, 1955, p.190; Hardie, 1966–68, vol.2, p.12; Holcomb, 1978, p.8; Lambourne and Hamilton, 1980, p.150; Herrmann, 2000, pp.38–39; Sellars, 2014, pp.38–40

About this Work

This very faded watercolour shows a view of the bluff on the river Wharfe, immediately opposite Bolton Abbey, and it therefore includes, to the right, the viewpoint for one of Girtin’s most celebrated compositions, Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe (TG1684). The watercolour was produced for Girtin’s great patron Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) of Harewood House, and it was presumably on an excursion from there, probably during the summer of 1800, that Girtin made the sketch on which this work is based. Only a patron with local knowledge – Harewood is twenty-five kilometres to the south east – might have been expected to appreciate Girtin’s view, for other than the title there is little to identify a scene that actually required the artist to turn his back on the famous picturesque ruins of Bolton Abbey, located a few metres away from the river (TG1678). In what was to become a key strategy in his later watercolours, the artist sought out unfamiliar ways to depict subjects that were in danger of becoming worn out by repetition, and in this way watercolours such as this represent what David Hill has termed the ‘apotheosis of Girtin’s ability to monumentalise the otherwise nondescript and unnoticeable’ (Hill, 1999, p.36). The concentration on the ‘mundane’, he continues, and on ‘simple nature’, is reinforced by the figure of the shepherd, whose long shadow and pose suggest that he rests at the end of the day, content with his lot in a place far removed from the whirl of the modern world. It is telling, therefore, that the watercolour, along with the majority of the works commissioned by Lascelles, was designed to be framed for display in the family’s London house in fashionable Hanover Square, London; an inventory of the collection records that ‘A View on the Wharf’ hung in the Small Drawing Room with other rural views by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) and John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749–1831) (Hill, 1999, p.57). 

Sadly, details such as the evening effect and the placid nature of the river are difficult to fully appreciate due to the work’s very faded state. The sky has disappeared entirely, though the reflections in the water, painted presumably in a less fugitive pigment, show that it was once preponderantly blue, whilst extensive areas of foliage have turned from green to a dull tone that is overshadowed by the artist’s use of bold hatching in a soft graphite. This last feature, which I am sure would not have been apparent in the work’s original state, led Hill to erroneously suggest that the large drawing might have been ‘made, and perhaps even, coloured, on the spot’, and this presumably accounts for the fact that he dates the work to 1798 (Hill, 1999, p.36). This is the same date given by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak, who also focus on Girtin’s use of hatching, suggesting that it points to an earlier period when the artist showed signs of the influence of the amateur artist Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.65). In fact, there is no evidence that Girtin was ever directly influenced by the work of the barely competent amateur, not least in prestigious commissions for Lascelles, and the feature of the prominent hatching would never have been evident if the work had not faded so badly. It seems that the artist used such bold hatching only when working on a large scale to help articulate depth within areas of foliage. Because this only becomes apparent when the washes of colour added on top have been lost, it has no value for dating Girtin’s works. Added to the fact that there is no evidence that Girtin visited either Harewood or this part of Yorkshire in 1798, I can see no reason to think that this work was completed earlier than the bulk of the commissions for Lascelles – that is, around 1800.

1800 - 1801

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey



Bolton Abbey: The East End of the Priory Church, from across the River Wharfe


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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