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Works Thomas Girtin after John Cleveley the Younger

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


Primary Image: TG0004: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after John Cleveley the Younger (1747-86), The Great Geysir, Iceland, as It Appeared during Its Eruption to Sir Joseph Banks in September 1772, 1790, graphite, pen and ink and watercolour on paper, on an original washline mount, 43.2 × 31.8 cm, 17 × 12 ½ in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Christie's

Artist's source: John Cleveley the Younger (1747–86), The Great Geyser, Iceland, as it Appeared During its Eruption to Sir Joseph Banks in September 1772, watercolour and pen and ink on paper, 44 × 32 cm, 17 ⁵⁄₁₆ × 12 ⅝ in. British Library, London (Add Ms 15511, f.43).

Photo courtesy of The British Library Board

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after John Cleveley the Younger (1747-1786)
  • The Great Geysir, Iceland, as It Appeared during Its Eruption to Sir Joseph Banks in September 1772
Medium and Support
Graphite, pen and ink and watercolour on paper, on an original washline mount
43.2 × 31.8 cm, 17 × 12 ½ in

'from a Drawing done by John Cleveley, Jun.r who accompanied Sir Jos. Banks to Iceland as Draughtsman' on the mount; 'T. Gurton copied 1790' on the mount

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 17i

About this Work

This view of the Great Geysir is part of a group of very early signed and dated watercolours 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.

The Great Geysir, Iceland, with the Party of John Thomas Stanley

The inscription on the original mount of the source for Girtin’s watercolour (see the source image above), presumably made by Stanley, notes that Cleveley ‘accompanied’ Banks on his expedition to the Haukadalur valley, though he presumably made his watercolour back in England in 1772 after a drawing taken on the spot. A visit to the geyser in the south west of Iceland was one of the highlights of Stanley’s 1789 trip too, and he commissioned a number of views from Dayes of the spectacular natural phenomenon, both from near to and from a distance. It is not clear, however, why Stanley commissioned a relatively prosaic copy of the earlier view at the same time as Dayes’ more spectacular scene (see figure 1), with its fascinating personal dimension. Thus, whilst one of the pair of oils produced by Dayes showing the geyser erupting depicts the full extent of Stanley’s party (including their dogs, who also made the trip), the Girtin–Cleveley composition has just two distant figures to give a sense of scale. Moreover, whilst Dayes was even at second hand able to capture something of the violent drama of the geyser in action, the inexperienced apprentice Girtin could do little more than reproduce the prosaic nature of Cleveley’s view. Banks himself described the geyser as a ‘wonderful volcano of water’, but he was unable to explain the cause of the phenomenon and noted in general how this ‘land of emptiness’ lacked visual attractions (Bonehill, 2014, p.22). As Dayes’ dramatic view illustrates, this was not necessarily the case; rather, Cleveley may not have had the formal means to realise the subject’s potential, even though he had witnessed the scene himself.

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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