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Works Thomas Girtin

The Water Works at Marly, Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the Distance: Pencil Study for Plate Fifteen of Picturesque Views in Paris


Primary Image: TG1883: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Water Works at Marly, Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the Distance: Pencil Study for Plate Fifteen of 'Picturesque Views in Paris', 1802, graphite on laid paper, 14.5 × 46.2 cm, 5 ¾ × 18 ⅛ in. British Museum, London (1868,0328.357).

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

Print after: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), soft-ground etching, The Water Works at Marly, Saint Germain-en-Laye in the Distance, 2 September 1802, 14.9 × 46.7 cm, 5 ⅞ × 18 ⅜ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1981.25.2606).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Water Works at Marly, Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the Distance: Pencil Study for Plate Fifteen of Picturesque Views in Paris
Medium and Support
Graphite on laid paper
14.5 × 46.2 cm, 5 ¾ × 18 ⅛ in

‘20’ lower right

Part of
Object Type
Drawing for a Print; Outline Drawing
Subject Terms
Panoramic Format; Paris and Environs; River Scenery

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
472 as 'The Water Works at Marly'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2018


John Girtin (1773–1821); bought by John Jackson (d.1828); his posthumous sale, Foster’s, 24 April 1828, lot 321; bought by 'Tiffin'; ... 'Colnaghi'; bought from them by the Museum, 1868


Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, pp.495–96; Binyon, 1898–1907, no.78; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.81

About this Work

This view of the celebrated seventeenth-century water works at Marly, with Saint-Germain-en-Laye seen in the distance, was drawn on the spot by Girtin early in 1802 in preparation for plate fifteen of his Picturesque Views in Paris (see print after TG1883a). Having completed a series of highly detailed drawings of the French capital, Girtin engaged the help of the playwright Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809) to ‘take views in the environs’ of the city on a series of ‘short excursions’ to the sites ‘esteemed the most picturesque’ by contemporary artists (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, p.488).1 Holcroft’s account of their trips, published in 1804, provides the only direct evidence we have of Girtin’s sketching practice, including, in this case, the fact that unlike in the city views, for which the artist almost certainly employed a camera obscura, here he worked freehand. Holcroft thus records that following an abortive visit to Versailles, where Girtin had ‘hoped to find full and delightful employment for his pencil’, such was his ‘disappointment’ that he was not tempted to ‘draw a single line, not least because ‘Le petit Trianon … a garden laid out in the English style … was at too great a distance for Girtin to walk to’ (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, pp.494–95). The two men moved on to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, passing the great aqueduct, which had been constructed to supply the palace gardens with water. ‘As we descended the hill’, Holcroft added, ‘the eye of Girtin was delighted by a number of combining objects; his chagrin was forgotten, and we stopped while he produced another landscape: the third he had taken that day’ (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, pp. 495–96). As with the other drawings made in Holcroft’s presence, this was ‘not finished, but all the objects were in their proper place, and sufficiently made out for him to accurately understand his own intentions’ (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, p.491). All of this had a moral lesson for Holcroft: namely, the ‘pompous pride’ of Louis XIV (1638–1715) may have meant that his monumental gardens at Versailles were built without a water supply, but he was saved by the ingenuity of his engineers, which meant that ‘the fame not the folly of the monarch was trumpeted through Europe’ (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, pp.494–95).

Although these works are different in character from the city sketches, the artist continued to use the same support, which, as the paper historian Peter Bower has noted, is a cream laid writing paper made by the Blauw and Briel company in Holland; this he believes, was bought by Girtin in Paris, and may have been made twenty years earlier (Smith, 2002b, p.141; Bower, Report).

Girtin’s soft-ground etching (see the print after, above) was published separately from the finished aquatint, on 2 September 1802. To create this autograph print, the artist first traced his own drawing, reversing the image in the process (see image 1) and then, using the tracing as a template, impressed the lines onto an etching plate coated in a tacky ground of an acid-resistant mix. Lifting the tracing and taking away the ground where the lines had been pushed in, he would then have immersed the plate in acid, which would have bitten into the unprotected areas. Cleaned up, the plate, with the etched lines now according with the direction of Girtin’s original drawing, could then be used to print from. Such a complex procedure employed by a novice printmaker like Girtin no doubt required a number of proof stages, and in this case two have survived. One, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see image 2), is marked with a note in pencil, ‘too strong’, with a line to the buildings on the skyline. Another appears to be a proof of an unpublished plate, and it again contains a number of additional notes by the artist (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.10898)). Martin Hardie, in his unpublished account of the Paris prints in the Girtin Archive (37), describes this second plate as superior to the first, which he says is ‘underbitten’, though it was not used for the final print. He argues that the addition of aquatint to this plate was ‘a failure’ and that Girtin had to fall back on the inferior soft-ground etching that he had hoped to replace. The differences between the two proofs are on the whole minor, though they can be identified, if one wishes, by overlaying images of them.


The Water Works at Marly, Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the Distance: Colour Study for Plate Fifteen of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 Holcroft’s unique eye-witness account of Girtin at work during the excursions they undertook in and around Paris in the early spring of 1802, published in the second volume of Travels from Hamburg, through Westphalia, Holland, and the Netherlands, to Paris, is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1802 – Item 1).

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