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Country House Portraits and the Patronage of the Gentry

Patrons and Pupils, 1799

Middleham Village, with the Castle Beyond

One of the few things we know for certain about Girtin’s travels in search of subjects for his watercolours is that he struggled to finance them, even with the promise of commissions in hand, and for this reason alone it is likely that their number and extent are less substantial than was once thought. The trip to Yorkshire in 1799 is typical in that it is all but undocumented, and there is just the one dated pencil drawing, showing the village of Middleham with the castle in the distance (figure 1), from which to reconstruct Girtin’s itinerary. The probability is that the drawing was made on an excursion from Harewood House and that the tour as a whole was financed by Girtin’s principal patron at the time, Edward Lascelles (1764–1814), who, according to early biographers, provided the artist with a base to work from.1 Sketches made in the vicinity of Harewood were certainly worked up into commissions for Lascelles, and a series of receipts for varying sums of money suggest that he provided a ready income that allowed the artist the security to explore the Yorkshire countryside in some depth.


Depicting the seat of a wealthy patron, or the most picturesque antiquities or countryside in its vicinity, was not the only way in which a patron might employ an artist, however. Sir George Howland Beaumont (1753–1827) has often been singled out for his support of the artist, though arguably this was predominantly for the ultimate influence that Girtin’s drawings had on another of his protégés, John Constable (1776–1837). The sketch-like watercolours that Girtin produced for Beaumont are very different from the pencil drawings made in Yorkshire, however. As with earlier works made for James Moore (1762–99), Girtin’s seven Lake District views are based on the amateur’s own sketches, and he certainly did not visit the area himself. Even the mature artist, it seems, was not above realising subjects from the sketches of a wealthy amateur. It may even be that Girtin (as a professional artist) created views such as Borrowdale (figure 2) as lessons, something that he did with a number of wealthy pupils, including Lascelles himself (TG1546) and Amelia Long, Lady Farnborough (1772–1837) (see TG1636 figure 2).

The 30 or so entries in the section Patrons and Pupils, 1799 can be accessed here.

1799 - 1800

A Close View of Harewood House, from the South East


1800 - 1801

Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Bridge, Morning


Edward Lascelles and Harewood, Together with Other Houses of the Gentry

Bamburgh Castle

A series of payments totalling over £210, beginning in February 1798, were made by Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) to Girtin for unspecified drawings and ‘Lessons’, making him, financially at least, the artist’s most significant patron. A later inventory of the Lascelles collection, combined with details from its dispersal at a sale in 1858, indicates that this amounted to about fifteen watercolours, including a view of part of Bamburgh Castle listed as ‘The Rocking Stone’ (figure 3) together with a handful of pencil drawings.2 In contrast with earlier patrons, such as James Moore (1762–99) and Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833), Lascelles’ emphasis was therefore on large-scale watercolours, which were framed for display on the walls of the London family home. Amongst the earliest commissions from Lascelles were two large Welsh scenes, sketched on Girtin’s 1798 tour, the monumental Mountain View, near Beddgelert (TG1322) and The Ogwen Falls (figure 4), both of which, in all likelihood, featured in the 1799 exhibition at the Royal Academy. The former, in particular, was an enormous success, and together with Turner’s Caernarfon Castle (see TG1738 figure 1), its scale, combined with a bold and dramatic handling, meant that it was hailed as a significant advance in the art. In the hands of these two young artists, the watercolour medium could now vie with oils in terms of impact, and be suited to works with serious aesthetic ambitions.

The Ogwen Falls

Girtin visited the family seat at Harewood in Yorkshire in 1799, and again in 1800, when he made sketches for a series of local scenes commissioned by Lascelles, including Harewood Bridge (TG1551) and Ilkley, from the River Wharfe (TG1673). Both of these fine works have faded badly, the combined effect of long exposure to light on the walls of the Lascelles house in Hanover Square and Girtin’s choice of fugitive blue and yellow pigments, a factor in the family’s later decision to sell the works at auction. Something of the original effect of these watercolours can be gauged, however, from another Lascelles commission, the brightly coloured Buildings on the River Nidd, near Knaresborough (figure 5), which dates from 1800.

The North Front of Chalfont Lodge, Seen from the Lake

The culmination of Girtin’s work for Lascelles, financially if not aesthetically, came with a commission for four monumental framed watercolours on the same scale as A Mountain View, near Beddgelert, which show Harewood House and its park from the south west (TG1547) and the south east (TG1548), together with two other local scenes with close family connections, Plumpton Rocks, near Knaresborough (TG1553) and A Distant View of Knaresborough, from the South East (figure 6), dated 1801. A note from Lascelles in which he asks whether the artist has ‘made the alterations in the Drawings of this place which I wish’d you to do’, referring no doubt to one of the views of Harewood, is particularly telling, since it was presumably the need to pander to the whims of his patrons that hastened Girtin’s employment of Samuel William Reynolds (1773-1835) as an agent to dispose of his works.3 Harewood House, from the South East, showing the mansion viewed across the park laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83), though much faded, suggests that Girtin was still able to infuse the tired conventions of the country house portrait with some drama. There is no question of the artist rejecting employment from the landed classes, however much their source of wealth, as in the case of the Lascelles family, may have been deemed by some of his contemporaries to be tainted by their association with slavery. Indeed, Girtin accepted another commission from a notorious slave-owner, Thomas Hibbert (1744–1819), for views of his newly remodelled home, Chalfont House, together with other views on the estate (figure 7). In this case, however, the relationship between artist and patron does not seem to have been close, and it may be that Girtin did not actually visit the estate (TG1561). In other cases Girtin probably painted a country house view, such as Alnwick Castle, from Brizlee (figure 8), on a speculative basis. The artist certainly visited the Alnwick estate, even if he had no links with its owner, Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland (1742–1817), but with other estate views, such as A Distant View of Arundel Castle (TG1567), he appears to have used a secondary source.

Alnwick Castle, from Brizlee

Figure 8.
TG1092: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Alnwick Castle, from Brizlee, 1799–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 40.7 × 53 cm, 16 × 20 ⅞ in. Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.

Digital image courtesy of Duke of Northumberland (All Rights Reserved).

The 45 or so entries in the section Edward Lascelles and Harewood, Together with Other Houses of the Gentry can be accessed here.

1798 - 1799

A Mountain View, near Beddgelert


1800 - 1801

Harewood Bridge


1800 - 1801

Ilkley, from the River Wharfe


(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South West


(?) 1801

Harewood House, from the South East


1800 - 1801

Plumpton Rocks, near Knaresborough


(?) 1800

The North Front of Chalfont Lodge, Seen from the Lake


1799 - 1800

A Distant View of Arundel Castle, from the South



  1. 1 Roget, 1891, p.96
  2. 2 Hill, 1995, pp.57–8; Exhibitions: Christie’s, 1 May 1858
  3. 3 Roget, 1891, p.120


Article title
Country House Portraits and the Patronage of the Gentry
Cite as
Greg Smith, "Country House Portraits and the Patronage of the Gentry--", Thomas Girtin (1775–1802): An Online Catalogue, Archive and Introduction to the Artist, (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2022)

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