• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 7635

    British Art on Paper

    10 December 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 25

    Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

    Bolton Abbey on the banks of the River Wharfe, Yorkshire

    Price Realised  


    Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
    Bolton Abbey on the banks of the River Wharfe, Yorkshire
    signed and dated 'Girtin 1801' (lower right)
    pencil and watercolour
    12¾ x 20¾ in. (32.4 x 52.7 cm.)

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    The present watercolour is the most serene and imposing of Girtin's views of Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire, a subject which he explored in 1800-1801. Four pencil sketches and seven watercolours of the Abbey are known, as well as watercolours of the Stepping Stones on the Wharfe opposite the Abbey, and the winding river in The Hickman Bacon Collection known as On the Wharfe. The grandeur of the spot, discovered by Girtin on his Northern tour of 1800, resonated with the artist. That year he stayed with Edward Lascelles (1764-1814), eldest son of the Earl of Harewood, at Harewood House, about twenty miles south-east of Bolton. Like Kirkstall Abbey, also painted by Girtin at this time, Bolton fulfilled what Girtin was seeking in those last years of his all-too-short career (he died in 1802, aged twenty-eight). Here was a major medieval ruin, situated by water, and framed by the sublime Yorkshire landscape.

    The present watercolour, dated 1801, shows the Abbey from the south-east, across the River Wharfe. Bolton Abbey, actually an Augustinian Priory, was founded in 1151 by Alicia de Romilly and suppressed in 1539 at the Reformation. The west end, still roofed, survives as the parish church; the east end was allowed to fall into picturesque decay. Girtin's watercolour is loosely derived from a pencil sketch of 1800 in the Shepherd Sketchbook (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) which shows the modern village clustered round the south side of the Abbey. In the watercolour, Girtin has stripped out much of this extraneous detail to emphasise the nobility of the ruin, which is also seen from its most homogenous angle. The monumental building towers over the unassuming later cottages. Its blocklike, brooding presence is poignantly undercut by light shining through the delicate tracery of the vast windows in the ruined eastern section. Behind loom the eternal hills, almost grazed by drifting clouds from which escape fitful gleams of sunlight.

    Water was everything to a Girtin composition. Here he makes brilliant play of reflections in the Wharfe, balancing a cow created from a few dazzling strokes of Chinese white gouache, standing in dark bushes, with another, silhouetted animal defined by a strip of sunlit water. Girtin uses his uncanny control of the broadest of watercolour washes and his exquisitely-judged sense of composition to convey the harmony of the man-made and the natural.

    The romantic legends around Bolton Abbey inspired poems by both Samuel Rogers (1763-1855), who owned a Girtin watercolour of Bolton, coloured on the spot, and William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) painted it in circa 1809. The importance of Bolton in Girtin's oeuvre is underlined by the fact that he chose Bolton Bridge (now lost) for his first essay in oil, shown at the Royal Academy in 1801. The present watercolour was owned by Girtin's exact contemporary, Sir William Pilkington (1775-1850) of Chevet Park near Wakefield, who joins Edward Lascelles, Sir John Ramsden (circa 1755-1839), Lord Buchan (1742-1829) and Lord Mulgrave (1755-1831) among those Northern patrons who treasured his unique vision of their beloved landscape.

    We are grateful to Susan Morris for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.

    Special Notice

    No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.


    Sir William Pilkington, Bt.
    H.L. Bradfer-Lawrence and by descent in the family.
    Mrs. P.J.G. Gray; and by descent to the present owner.

    Pre-Lot Text

    Property from the Collection of The Late H. L Bradfer-Lawrence


    Leeds Art Calendar, 6, 1952, no. 19, as in the collection of H.L. Bradfer-Lawrence.
    T. Girtin & D. Loshak, The Art of Thomas Girtin, London, 1954, p. 194, pl. 76.
    D. Hill, Thomas Girtin: Genius in the North, Harewood House Trust, 1999, p. 32, n. 16.


    London, Agnew's, Loan Exhibition of Water-Colour Drawings by Thomas Girtin, 1953, no. 80, lent by H. L. Bradfer-Lawrence.
    London, The Arts Council of Great Britain, Watercolours and Drawings from the Bradfer-Lawrence Collection, 1954, no. 24, lent by H. L. Bradfer-Lawrence.
    Leeds, Leeds City Art Gallery, Exhibition of Early English Watercolours, 1958, no. 54.
    British Council Fine Arts Department, English Watercolours for Switzerland, no. 72, lent by H.L. Bradfer Lawrence.
    Japan, Tokyo, Musée National d'Art Occidental, 18th/19th Century English Landscape, 1970-71, no. 78, lent by Mrs. P. Gray.
    On loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1983.