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Later Tours and Working on the Open Market, 1800–1802

Later Sketches: Taken on the Spot and Worked in the Studio

Kirkstall Abbey, with a Canal Barge

It makes little sense to refer to a late style when considering the work of an artist who was only twenty-seven when he died, and I have consequently avoided dividing Girtin’s career into discrete stylistic periods as the first cataloguers of his work did.1 The idea of a quantifiable and progressive change in the artist’s style simply does not stand, as the example of a pencil drawing such as Kirkstall Abbey, with a Canal Barge (figure 1) suggests. This might easily be dated to the earlier 1796 Yorkshire trip were it not for the fact that the watercolour based on it is inscribed ‘1802’ and the artist did not visit Kirkstall until his documented stay at Harewood House in the summer of 1800. Indeed, the drawing is noticeably simplified compared with earlier architectural subjects, such as The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral (TG1014), from 1794, with the emphasis placed on a clear outline. The later more economical drawing of Kirkstall recorded the basic compositional structure to which Girtin could add natural effects assembled from a combination of invention and memory when painting the studio watercolour (TG1637). The colour sketches from the last years of Girtin’s life, some of which were included in a collection of drawings that the artist himself put together, are also smaller and less heavily worked than earlier on-the-spot studies, such as Denbigh Castle and the Vale of Clwyd (TG1337). A fine example, such as Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe (figure 2), which was sketched on the spot on an excursion from Harewood in the summer of 1800, is typical in performing two functions. On the one hand, it formed the basis of two studio watercolours (TG1684 and TG1685) and, on the other, the drawing was removed from the collection of sketches that Girtin himself seems to have put together – the Whitworth Book of Drawings – and sold to an appreciative collector as an example of the artist’s skills as a draughtsman. Towards the end of his career, some collectors were willing to pay as much for a sketch as a finished watercolour, up to £8, and the premium they placed on Girtin’s spontaneous response to a scene such as this reflects the partisan support he received from those who appreciated the informal side of his practice as an artist.

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe

Figure 2.
TG1613: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 14.2 × 20.2 cm, 5 ⅝ × 8 in. British Museum, London (1855,0214.10).


Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

A Barn by a Pond

From as early as 1796 Girtin was also in the habit of making sketch-like drawings in the studio; he sold these to collectors, and in his later years this practice was extended to include outline drawings for which he also found ready purchasers amongst the many amateur artists who were his patrons. At least three of the pencil drawings in the Whitworth Book of Drawings (TG1323, TG1324 and TG1600TG1625), including Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1601), appear to have been copied from on-the-spot sketches that had found a buyer. And amongst the contents of Girtin’s studio found after his death were ‘4 little Books partly of sketches’ that probably contained works such A Barn by a Pond (figure 3).2 Although, initially at least, the drawing appears to have been sketched on the spot in haste, it was almost certainly painted in the studio from a scene taken on a trip to Essex a few years earlier. In their quiet way, these small drawings mark a radical effacement of the boundaries between the sketch and the finished studio work; this trend was, in coming years, to mark out landscape painting as one of the key arenas for the development of a modern and innovative art.

The almost 80 entires in the section Later Sketches: Taken on the Spot and Worked in the Studio can be accessed here.

(?) 1794

The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral

TG1014

1802

Kirkstall Abbey, from the Canal, Evening

TG1637

(?) 1798

Denbigh Castle and the Vale of Clwyd

TG1337

1800 - 1801

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey

TG1684

1800 - 1801

Stepping Stones on the River Wharfe, near Bolton Abbey

TG1685

1800 - 1801

Mountain Scenery, Said to Be near Beddgelert

TG1323

1800 - 1801

The Valley of the Glaslyn, near Beddgelert

TG1324

1798 - 1799

John Raphael Smith: ‘Waiting for the Mail Coach’

TG1600

(?) 1800

The Ruins of Old Mulgrave Castle

TG1625

(?) 1801

Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea

TG1601

Late Watercolours: Samuel William Reynolds and Painting for the Art Market

Lydford Castle, from the River Lyd

In parallel with his work for patrons such as Edward Lascelles (1764–1814) and Sir George Beaumont (1753–1827), Girtin took the unprecedented step, sometime in 1800, of engaging the services of a representative (acting somewhere between an agent and dealer), in the form of Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), to sell works such as Lydford Castle, from the River Lyd (figure 4). Some of the details of their arrangement are contained in a document from late 1801, in which Reynolds recorded that he had ‘Drawings by Girtin 19 Large size’ at £7 7s each and ‘10 smaller’ at £4 4s, and that since ‘Mr. G. leaves England in a fortnight’ for France, ‘they will then I should think become much more Valuable’.3 The watercolours Girtin produced for Reynolds can be identified with reasonable certainty from their size, a later set of receipts, the existence of the dealer’s own mezzotints and, above all, the presence on the watercolours, for the first time in the artist’s career, of prominently inscribed dates. It seems that Girtin added the dates in order to prove that Reynolds was not trying to sell old, unsold stock.

The Village of Jedburgh

Figure 5.
TG1725: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Village of Jedburgh, 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 30.2 × 52.1 cm, 11 ⅞ × 20 ½ in. National Galleries of Scotland (D 5175).


Digital image courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Appledore, from Instow Sands

The thirty or so watercolours that can be associated with Reynolds were presumably painted in batches, with an element of mass production; nonetheless, they include many of Girtin’s most famous and beautiful watercolours, including the iconic Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (TG1740), the so-called White House at Chelsea. A group of five watercolours sold by Reynolds in late 1801 for £50 to a recently identified collector, Elizabeth Weddell (1749–1831), is of particular significance for understanding his role in Girtin’s career.4 The very fine Village of Jedburgh (figure 5), from 1800, is based on a pencil sketch (TG1228) that can be dated with some degree of certainty to 1796, and it was thus made on the artist’s first independent tour, to the North East and the Scottish Borders. It is clear, therefore, that in addition to producing watercolours such as Wetherby: Looking through the Bridge to the Mills (TG1644), which realised recent sketches made in Yorkshire in the summer of 1800, Girtin returned to earlier on-the-spot drawings, and that the group associated with Reynolds consequently covers the whole of his career as a touring artist. From this it follows that the date of a watercolour is not directly related to its source and a watercolour such as Appledore, from Instow Sands (figure 6), which corresponds in size to the smaller of the formats produced for Reynolds and which I dated in the past to the aftermath of Girtin’s trip to the West Country in 1797, is more likely to have been painted around 1800.5 In turn, a watercolour of a Welsh scene or a West Country view that is dated 1800 or 1801, such as Conwy Castle, from the River Gyffin (TG1739) or Plymouth (TG1753), does not have to mean, as was once thought, that the artist revisited those regions. In making his choice of subjects for Reynolds, Girtin appears to have searched through sketches from across his career, looking for images that, with the addition of a suitable weather or light effect, might sell in a competitive and open art market.

St Vincent's Rocks and the Avon Gorge

Figure 7.
TG1735: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), St Vincent's Rocks and the Avon Gorge, (?) 1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 32.1 × 52.7 cm, 12 ⅝ × 20 ¾ in. The Whitworth, The University of Manchester (D.1997.4).


Digital image courtesy of The Whitworth, The University of Manchester / Photo by Michael Pollard (All Rights Reserved).

Morpeth Bridge

Girtin’s last years were so dominated by the production and installation of his monumental London panorama (the Eidometropolis) and by the major outcome of his trip to Paris (the prints that formed the Twenty Picturesque Views) that he all but ceased to be a specialist watercolourist. Only four watercolours of British views are dated from his last year, and though the fine, brooding dawn view of Bridgnorth (TG1755) is one of them, an earlier generation of historians looked to add other suitably dramatic works to its number as the culmination of a career tragically cut short. St Vincent’s Rocks and the Avon Gorge (figure 7) and An Upland Landscape, Identified as Storiths Heights, near Bolton Abbey (TG1686) were both suggested by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak as the artist’s ‘last work’, and these authors specifically opined that their depiction of a ‘loneliness of boundless spaces’ was symptomatic of a realisation ‘that death was not far off’.6 In fact, there is compelling evidence that the rather more commonplace picturesque view of St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury (TG1756) was the work left unfinished at the artist’s death and that a view of the northern market town of Morpeth (figure 8) is a more plausible candidate for the last of his completed watercolours. If Girtin did have a sense of his impending death, as befits a man whose biography fits the pattern of the tragic Romantic genius, then it does not show in his last work. Indeed, there is a real chance that images of lonely ‘boundless spaces’, such as St Vincent’s Rocks, may have been painted for Reynolds around 1800, and they may even predate the artist’s last reworkings of old prints, such as The Arch of Janus (figure 9), so that a sense of what might sell continued to take precedence over self-expression right up to Girtin’s death in November 1802.

The Arch of Janus, Rome

Figure 9.
TG0885: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), after Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78), The Arch of Janus, Rome, 1799–1800, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 21.1 × 31 cm, 8 ¼ × 12 ¼ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1035).


Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art (Public Domain).

The 130 or so entries in the section Late Watercolours: Samuel William Reynolds and Painting for the Art Market can be accessed here.

1800

Chelsea Reach, Looking towards Battersea (The White House, Chelsea)

TG1740

(?) 1796

The Village of Jedburgh, with the Abbey Ruins

TG1228

(?) 1800

Wetherby: Looking through the Bridge to the Mills

TG1644

1800

Conwy Castle, from the River Gyffin

TG1739

1801

Plymouth

TG1753

1802

Bridgnorth

TG1755

1800 - 1801

An Upland Landscape, Identified as Storiths Heights, near Bolton Abbey

TG1686

(?) 1802

St Ann’s Gate, Salisbury

TG1756

Footnotes

  1. 1 Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.48–94
  2. 2 Chancery, Income and Expenses, 1804). The financial records of the artist's brother John Girtin (1773–1821) covering the income he received from the sale of the contents of his brother's studio are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1804 – Item 1).
  3. 3 Reynolds, Letter, 1801. The details are contained in a letter from Reynolds to Sawrey Gilpin (1733–1807). The letter is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1801 – Item 4).
  4. 4 Reynolds, Letter, 1803. The letter detailing the sales of Girtin’s works by Reynolds is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1803 – Item 3).
  5. 5 Smith, 2002b, p.148
  6. 6 Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.90–92

Imprint

Imprint
Article title
Later Tours and Working on the Open Market, 1800–1802
Date
04/10/2021
Cite as
Greg Smith, "Later Tours and Working on the Open Market, 1800–1802--", 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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