Thomas Girtin and
J.M.W. Turner were both born within view of the dome of
St Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1775, just 64 days apart. Girtin
was the son of a well-to-do brush-maker in Southwark, while
Turner was born to a Covent Garden-based barber.
From a young age the duo both showed talent, working
side by side, before Girtin’s premature death in 1802 from
an asthma attack. He was just 27 years old. Turner, whose illustrious career came to overshadow that of his friend
and rival, would later say of the precocious skills held by Girtin, ‘Had poor Tom lived, I would have starved.’
The pair are thought to have met after Girtin completed
his first apprenticeship with the painter
Edward Dayes and found a job colouring prints for a dealer
in King Street, Covent Garden, where the young Turner also
They both continued their training in the evenings by copying the works of
John Robert Cozens in an academy belonging to George
III’s physician, a collector and patron called Dr Monro,
Head of British Drawings and Watercolours Harriet Drummond. ‘Inside
his studio on Adelphi Terrace they would take turns to draw
outlines and paint the colours, working together on compositions,’
The reputations of both artists quickly grew. ‘Prior to the late 18th century watercolour was primarily used for topographical works
such as maps, but thanks in part to these two artists, who
brought mood, atmosphere and interest to the medium, it became
increasingly popular,’ says Drummond.
By 1794 Girtin was exhibiting his watercolours at the Royal
Academy. Two years later he travelled to the Harewood Estate
in Yorkshire after winning the patronage of Viscount Edward
Lascelles, who asked him to paint scenes of his country estate.
The following year Turner followed him there.
Lascelles would go on to remark that although he considered
them to be the two finest artists working in Britain, Turner
finished his works ‘too much’ through laborious industry,
while Girtin was, on the other hand, an instinctive ‘genius’.
Among his peers Girtin also earned the nickname ‘Honest Tom’
because of his mild manner. Turner, in contrast, was
often considered a rude introvert, who people only tolerated
for Girtin’s sake.
In 1797 Girtin travelled to Devon, Somerset and Dorset, where
he experimented with a new panoramic format for constructing
His depiction of the rolling hills of Lyme Regis (above),
which is being sold by Christe’s on 31 January 2019, uses
just a handful of tones and simple, board brushwork to capture
a wonderfully poetic play of light, observes Drummond.
view of the landscape, now in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, looks south-east, continuing the panoramic
scene around the Dorset headland, while
a further picture housed in Yale Center for British Art
shows the view directly along Lyme Regis’s coastline. ‘It’s
wonderful to compare these images side by side, and to see the changing effects of the weather and Girtin’s experimentation
with viewpoints,’ says the specialist.
In contrast Girtin’s view of St Paul’s Cathedral from St Martin’s le Grand
(below), which is in the same Christie’s sale, highlights
his skill as a technical draughtsman, able to create complex
architectural views while also capturing the
bustle of everyday life on the London street
he grew up on.
A second watercolour by Girtin of the same view of St Paul’s is today housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
‘When you consider that the Lyme Regis and St Paul’s compositions were painted within months of each other, they come to represent
a sort of calling card for Girtin,’ says Drummond.
‘Together they illustrate the huge range of skills the artist
had under his belt while still only in his early twenties. Both were purchased by notable collectors Charles Sackville
Bale (1791-1880) and Paul Panton (1727-1797) respectively.’
In 1801 Girtin turned his attention to his most ambitious
project: a 360-degree, 18ft-high, 108ft-wide panoramic
oil painting of London’s skyline, as seen from the top of a
glass factory near Southwark Bridge. Mounted around a central
viewing platform, the work was to be called Eidometropolis.
In September of that year, while the work was in its final stages, Girtin travelled to Paris under the advice
of his doctor, who thought new air might help his asthma. Girtin stayed in Paris until early 1802 making studies of the
city, 20 of which were published posthumously by his brother
in 1803. The below etching from the series, which is also
being sold by Christie’s on 31 January 2019, depicts the
village of Choisy from the banks of the River Seine.
Girtin returned to London in the spring of 1802, and in the
summer unveiled his Eidometropolis at Spring Gardens,
near Trafalgar Square. Initial
crowds were slow until Girtin realised he had forgotten to
include the word ‘panorama’ in his newspaper advert. A corrected
post in The Times, dated 25 August 1802, caused numbers to
On Tuesday 9 November, Girtin died in his studio in The Strand.
Turner was present at the funeral. Girtin was laid to rest
in the graveyard of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, not
far from where the two had first met.
Ediometropolis remained on view until the start of
After the show closed it was placed in storage, from where
it vanished from the records, possibly destroyed in a fire
after being moved around Europe.
In more recent years Girtin’s reputation has been on the rise.
In 2002 Tate Britain mounted the show
Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour, which
was curated by Greg Smith and Anne Lyes. ‘Smith is now undertaking a complete
catalogue raisonné of Girtin’s work which is being published
online by the Paul Mellon Center for British Art. The work is resulting in lots
of exciting rediscoveries and redefining Girtin’s unique
and distinctive achievements,’ explains Drummond.
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Although Girtin remains less well-known than his contemporary Turner, today his works can command six-figure sums — his record price at auction was set at £468,650 for a watercolour of Jedburgh Abbey on the Scottish Borders. That work is now also in the collection at Yale.
‘Many collectors are yet to hear of Girtin, despite the success
he began to gather in his career,’ Drummond says. ‘The meeting
of these three works in our upcoming sale, however, seems
a propitious indicator that the tide is rightly shifting.’