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Works Thomas Girtin after James Miller

The Basalt Pillars near Laugarnes, Iceland

(?) 1790

Artist's source: James Miller (active 1773-1814), The Rude Pillar near Lauganess, watercolour and pen and ink on wove paper, 27.4 × 38 cm, 10 ¾ × 15 in. British Library, London (Add Ms 15511, f.55).

Photo courtesy of The British Library Board (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after James Miller (active 1773-1814)
  • The Basalt Pillars near Laugarnes, Iceland
(?) 1790
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on paper
Object Type
Commissioned from Thomas Girtin; Studio Watercolour; Work from a Known Source: Contemporary British
Subject Terms
Icelandic View

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Auction Catalogue


John Thomas Stanley, 1st Baron Stanley of Alderly (1766–1850); then by descent to Suzanne Beadle; her sale, Christie's, 15 June 1982, lot 17iii as 'View of the Basaltic Pillars near Langaness (Langanoes)'

About this Work

This watercolour, which has sadly not been traced, is part of a group of very early signed and darted views of Iceland that Girtin produced for John Thomas Stanley (1766–1850). Stanley travelled to Iceland in the summer of 1789, following in the footsteps of his friend the famous botanist Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820), who had made the journey in 1772. On his return Stanley commissioned Philip Reinagle (1749–1833), Nicholas Pocock (1740–1821) and Girtin’s master at the time, Edward Dayes (1763–1804), to work up many of his sketches into finished watercolours as records of his trip. In 1790 Stanley also employed the fifteen-year-old Girtin, then in the second year of his apprenticeship to Dayes, to make copies of some of the watercolours that Banks had commissioned following his 1772 trip to Iceland, though the fee from the artist’s first professional engagement would have gone to his master. In all Girtin made nine watercolours based on an earlier set of drawings made for Banks by John Frederick Miller (1759–96), James Miller (active 1773–1814) and John Cleveley the Younger (1747–86). Having failed to publish them as engravings, Banks had them mounted as a souvenir of his northern journey. The four volumes, titled Drawings Illustrative of Sir Joseph Banks’s Voyage to the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Iceland, are today kept in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Library (Add Mss 15509–12). Girtin’s first dated works, which were sold by a descendant of Stanley in 1982, therefore depict a country that he did not visit and were careful copies of watercolours made by professionals from sketches they had executed in the field twenty years earlier.

Girtin’s watercolour was copied from a monochrome drawing by James Miller included in the fourth volume of drawings made for Banks after his 1772 trip (see source image above). The drawing is inscribed with the letter ‘D’ in the top left corner and it appears that this was added by Stanley to mark a view that he wished Dayes to produce. In the event, the commission to copy the work went to the young Girtin. In contrast to the well-known sites of geological interest of which Stanley commissioned views (TG0004 and TG0005), the exact location depicted here has proved elusive. Laugarnes is on the coast, now part of Reykjavík, but there does not appear to be any basalt rock formation that resembles the outcrop shown here and it may be that the slightly unclear inscription is inaccurate or misleading. The costumes worn by the figures certainly suggest that Miller’s view was taken in Iceland, and the characteristic hexagonal columns of dark volcanic rock are a common feature of the island’s spectacular geology. Stanley himself visited the dramatic basalt formations in the bay of Stapi and that might be a more convincing identification for this view.


The Great Geysir, Iceland, as It Appeared during Its Eruption to Sir Joseph Banks in September 1772



Mount Hekla, with Sir Joseph Banks and His Party Descending from the Volcano


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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