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Thomas Girtin, 1775–1802

Tynemouth Priory, Northumberland

ca. 1793
Materials & Techniques:
Watercolor over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper
Sheet: 6 5/8 x 8 5/8 inches (16.8 x 21.9 cm), Mount: 9 11/16 x 11 5/8 inches (24.6 x 29.5 cm)

Inscribed in graphite, verso, upper center: "X"; in graphite, verso, center: "Tynemouth Priory | 9 (encircled); in graphite, verso, lower right: "4"

Signed in graphite, on mount, lower left: "Girtin"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
arches | architectural subject | clouds | donkey | figures | grass | ruins | ship | sky | stone | tree | water | women
Associated Places:
England | Europe | North Tyneside | Northumberland | Tynemouth | United Kingdom
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IIIF Manifest:

Thomas Girtin, together with John Robert Cozens and J. M. W. Turner, revolutionized watercolor painting at the end of the eighteenth century. This trio gave rise to what we would now identify as a new romantic approach to painting landscape that had a decisive effect on oil painters as well as watercolorists. In this early watercolor Girtin already shows that romantic sentiment by pushing the ruined priory up close to the picture plane, giving it an imposing, even oppressive, presence.

Gallery label for Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17)
Girtin's first tutor was Edward Dayes (1763-1804), a minor topographical watercolorist to whom Girtin was apprenticed in 1789 but soon surpassed. At first glance, the seventeen-year-old Girtin's early Tynemouth Priory, Northumberland appears to be a conventional topographical work in the manner of Dayes. It belongs to a series of around sixty views of monastic ruins that Girtin produced not from direct observation but from sketches made by the antiquarian and amateur artist James Moore. Girtin translated Moore's pen and ink sketches into finished watercolors with his teacher's characteristic monochrome underpainting and cool blue and gray coloring. But closer inspection reveals a far more sophisticated approach. Girtin pushed the priory's shattered east end up close to the viewer as well as placing it asymmetrically on the paper. The effect is disconcerting, especially when coupled with the abrupt shifts from light to dark and the turbulent gray clouds scudding in from the south. A glimpse of a passing ship's rigging reveals the forbidding placement of this ruin on a promontory overlooking the North Sea. Girtin's lighting is also boldly inconsistent. The east end is seen contre-jour, with sunlight coming in through the lancet windows, yet the wall casts almost no shadow over the south side or the overgrown chancel floor. Moreover, the standing male figure on the right casts his shadow on the wall behind him as if he were standing facing the sun. These subtle inconsistencies heighten the sense of unease, which the inclusion of human figures does nothing to alleviate. Not only are the pair overwhelmed by the scale of the ruins, but the man adopts a hostile crossed-armed pose, which does not suggest a charming scene of rustic courtship. The sense of the pair being alienated by the scale of the ruins and from each other represents the beginning of Girtin's more romantic approach to landscape that is quite different to anything seen in the work of Dayes. It is also at variance with Thomas Thornburn's Tynemouth: A Panegyrick Poem of 1792, which attempted to bill Tynemouth as a pleasant health resort for its "situation pleasant" and "fine salubrious air." Already Girtin was asserting his own approach to landscape. It has been pointed out that the young artist has signed this watercolor, a gesture of self-confidence that implies his independence from Dayes and the likelihood that he was already being employed directly by Moore, rather than as a mere apprentice to his master.

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2007, p. 93, no. 39

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Thomas Girtin (Yale Center for British Art, 1986-01-21 - 1986-03-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Thomas Girtin, The art of Thomas Girtin, A. and C. Black, London, 1954, p. 137, no. 27, fig. 9, NJ18 G44 G445 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Susan Morris, Thomas Girtin, 1775-1802, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 36, no. 12, NJ18 .G44 M67 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 93-95, no. 39, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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