Thomas Girtin is well known for the innovative contribution he made to the development of watercolor painting in Britain just before the turn of the 19th Century. Indeed, to some of his contemporaries, Girtin appeared to be a bolder and more confident artist than J.M.W. Turner. Such perceptions were very much to the fore in the years around 1797-8, when this London scene and lot 110 were painted. At that stage both artists were still collaborating on copies of views by John Robert Cozens for Dr. Thomas Monro, even as they acquired individual commissions from important new patrons such as Edward Lascelles at Harewood House in Yorkshire. Their contrasting ways of depicting that great country house provided an ideal opportunity to identify and define their unique qualities, leading Lascelles to declare that Turner finished his works ‘too much’ and achieved his effects through laborious ‘industry’, whereas Girtin relied more on his instinctive ‘genius’.
Despite winning such esteem, over the next few years, before his tragically premature death in November 1802, Girtin proved less successful than Turner in terms of academic recognition. Instead, during a period of ground-breaking creativity in his landscape painting, he also ventured into daring commercial enterprises. Chief of these was an encircling panoramic painting of London known as the Eidometropolis (meaning the ‘form of the capital’), exhibited at Wrigley’s Great Rooms, in Spring Gardens, from August 1802 to April 1803. Measuring 1,944 square feet, the vast painting is lost, presumed destroyed. It was scaled up from a series of vivid watercolour studies (now in the British Museum), and depicted the City and surrounding neighbourhoods from a terrace adjoining the British Plate Glass Warehouse, near the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge. (The most recent account is G. Smith, A ‘Connoisseur’s Panorama’: Thomas Girtin’s Eidometropolis and Other London Views, c. 1796-1802, London Topographical Society, no. 180, 2018).
Although a Londoner himself, prior to his work on the Eidometropolis Girtin had only rarely represented the landmarks of his hometown, preferring to focus on less familiar, rural or architectural settings that had obvious ‘Picturesque’ market appeal. Even when he did record London scenes in the 1790s, there is a sense that he was aiming to please antiquarian or picturesque tastes, as in his depictions of ruined buildings (see G. Smith, op. cit., 2002, pp. 92-3 no. 67-9).
In vivid contrast to the quasi-documentary or elegiac character of those works, the present watercolor of St. Paul’s Cathedral is all the more distinctive and exciting, with its lively recreation of metropolitan life set against the looming presence of Sir Christopher Wren’s awe-inspiring dome. Although this might now be described as an ‘iconic’ London view, the setting, in the narrow street of St. Martin-le-Grand to the north of the cathedral, was one that was directly connected with Girtin himself. Following the death of his father, the three-year old Girtin had moved there from Southwark when his mother was married again to a Mr. Vaughan. Based at no. 2 St. Martin-le-Grand (the address Girtin gave when he first began to exhibit at the Royal Academy), Vaughan was a textile ‘pattern drawer’, who oversaw and encouraged Girtin’s first attempts at painting.
While the view towards St. Paul’s was undoubtedly firmly ingrained in Girtin’s head, he evidently worked hard to create a composition full of interest and dramatic contrasts of tone and light. He first embarked on the idea around 1795, setting out the design in a full-scale (possibly plein air) study using pencil outlines, which are given weight and volume where he applied grey wash for the shadows (Fig. 1; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven: Paul Mellon Collection). That incomplete drawing reveals how he built up his watercolours at this stage of his career, its development interrupted prior to the application of color and the eventual introduction of human interest in the foreground.
Although the study at the Yale Center eventually provided the framework for the present, previously undocumented watercolor, which appears to date from around 1797, it had initially been used as the basis for a watercolor now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Fig. 2; Sir Edward Manton Gift, 2002), which must date from the same moment as the study, since both were created on sheets of white wove paper. For this slightly later version, however, Girtin adopted a heavier, flecked cartridge paper of the type he frequently selected to introduce texture in the bolder, more abstracted works of his mature years. Comparing the two versions of the scene also reveals a more even use of shade and colour in the present work, as well as greater competence in the sharp observation and nuanced interaction of the people and animals enlivening the street.
The existence of two versions of the subject indicates its contemporary success, but regrettably the early histories of both works remain unknown. One of them was seen by Turner, who complemented his friend by saying, ‘Girtin, no man living could do this but you’ (W. Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., London 1862, II, p. 36). The first known owner of this version was probably Paul Panton Sen., a Welsh barrister, industrialist, who as an enthusiastic antiquarian explored the remains of Britain’s past with Thomas Pennant. Panton’s son, also named Paul, pursued similar interests and (like Girtin) honed his painting skills by copying drawings by James Moore. These common interests and connections make it possible that one or other of the Pantons acquired the watercolor directly from Girtin, although he is not known to have travelled to their home on Anglesey during his tour of North Wales in 1798.
Some years after Girtin’s death, at the time when the area around St. Martin-le-Grand was being redeveloped for the construction of the new central Post Office, his brother John published a number of the artist’s images, including this work, which was issued in an aquatint by John Baily dedicated to the Earl of Essex (1815).
We are grateful to Susan Morris and Ian Warrell for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.
Fig. 1: Thomas Girtin, St. Paul's Cathedral, from St. Martin's-le-Grand, London, c. 1795, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection.
Fig 2: Thomas Girtin, St. Paul's Cathedral, from St. Martin's-le-Grand, London, c. 1795, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Sir Edwin Manton gift.