From left Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), St. Paul’s Cathedral from St. Martin’s-le-Grand, London. 19 x 15⅝  in (48.3 x 39.7 cm). Estimate $180,000-250,000. This lot is offered in

Better than Turner? The brief and brilliant career of Thomas Girtin

Thomas Girtin, who died aged 27, was a friend and colleague of J.M.W. Turner — and regarded by many as more gifted. As three of his works come to auction in New York, Harriet Drummond, Head of British Drawings and Watercolours tells us why

The painters 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 worked.

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, explains Christie’s 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,’ she explains.

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.

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon. 10⅞ x 15¼ in (27.8 x 39 cm). Sold for £80,500 on 20 November 2013 at Christie’s in London

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon. 10⅞ x 15¼ in (27.8 x 39 cm). Sold for £80,500 on 20 November 2013 at Christie’s in London

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.

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), Above Lyme Regis, Looking across Marshwood Vale, Dorset. 9¾ x 20⅜  in (24.8 x 51.7 cm). Estimate $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 31 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), Above Lyme Regis, Looking across Marshwood Vale, Dorset. 9¾ x 20⅜ in (24.8 x 51.7 cm). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 31 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

In 1797 Girtin travelled to Devon, Somerset and Dorset, where he experimented with a new panoramic format for constructing his landscapes. 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.

Another 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.

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), St. Paul’s Cathedral from St. Martin’s-le-Grand, London. 19 x 15⅝  in (48.3 x 39.7 cm). Estimate $180,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 31 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), St. Paul’s Cathedral from St. Martin’s-le-Grand, London. 19 x 15⅝ in (48.3 x 39.7 cm). Estimate: $180,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 31 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

‘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.

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), View of the palace and village of Choisy on the bank of the Seine, Paris. 6 x 18⅛  in (15.2 x 46 cm). Estimate $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 31 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Thomas Girtin (London 1775-1802), View of the palace and village of Choisy on the bank of the Seine, Paris. 6 x 18⅛ in (15.2 x 46 cm). Estimate: $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 31 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

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 swell.

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 1803. 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.

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), Sketch for the Eidometropolis Panorama, Great Surrey Street and Christchurch, Southwark, between 1797 and 1802. Pen and brush with brown ink, with graphite ruling on moderately thick, slightly textured, blued white, wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), Sketch for the Eidometropolis: Panorama, Great Surrey Street and Christchurch, Southwark, between 1797 and 1802. Pen and brush with brown ink, with graphite ruling on moderately thick, slightly textured, blued white, wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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.’