Girtin’s 1797 sketching tour through the western counties of Dorset, Devon and Somerset is considered to have been a powerful catalyst in the development of his mature approach to landscape, significantly modifying his ideas of how to compose his images. Most notably, his travels that year stimulated a panoramic format, which anticipates his views of London for the Eidometropolis (see G. Smith, op. cit., p. 143).
This watercolor depicts the hills, and hedge-fringed fields of Dorset rolling down to the coast at Lyme Regis. Like nearby Weymouth, which Girtin had already visited and recorded soon after beginning his tour, the historic port of Lyme Regis was by then increasingly noted as a resort; indeed just a few years later Jane Austen’s stay there would inspire the decisive events of her novel Persuasion. But rather than focusing on the picturesque fishing boats, or the distinctive harbor wall, known as the Cobb, it was the landscape around the town that captured Girtin’s interest.
The series of works he created reveals a startling freshness in the way the landscape is selected and framed, quite unlike anything in the works of his contemporaries. This novel approach can be appreciated in a watercolor plein-air study in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art (Fig. 1), where he creates a sinuous recession through the variety of forms present in the eroded and undulating coastline.
The present watercolor is just as playful with perspective, and can be linked with another work, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (Fig. 2), to create a sweeping panorama from the top of Pilsdon Pen, an Iron Age hill fort on one of the highest points in Dorset. Here the composition scans the countryside of Marshwood Vale, looking southwards towards a gap in the hills that provides a tantalizing glimpse of the sea at Charmouth. The peak at the center is Lambert Castle, another Iron Age fort, and to its right the line of the ridge runs off towards Raymonds Hill and Lyme Regis. Using a very limited palette and simple broad washes, Girtin creates a rich variety of tones and visual rhythms, suggesting differences in the fall of light and the nature of the crops being cultivated. Various farms and other buildings, highlighted by wisps of smoke, can also be spotted as the eye travels across this expanse of classically British countryside. To complement this scene, the watercolor at Ottawa shows the view towards the south-east, effectively continuing the prospect to the left. However, the weather conditions vary between the two watercolors, with the gentle morning light of the present work replaced by a cloudier, more unsettled sky.
Despite Girtin’s unconventional means of representing the setting, the landscape’s delineation of the underlying interconnections between the fragments of Britain’s ancient past would have been of interest to antiquarians. The Iron Age forts evoked here probably also had a patriotic contemporary resonance at a time when the nation was at war with Revolutionary France. Indeed it seems that a beacon had been created on Lambert’s Castle to give warning of any threat of invasion.
We are grateful to Susan Morris and Ian Warrell for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.
Fig. 1: Thomas Girtin, Lyme Regis, Dorset, c. 1797, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven.
Fig. 2: Thomas Girtin, Lyme Regis, Dorset, c. 1797, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.