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Thomas Girtin, 1775–1802

Ouse Bridge, York

Materials & Techniques:
Watercolor with pen and brown ink over graphite, with scratching out on medium, rough, beige wove paper
Sheet: 12 15/16 x 20 5/8 inches (32.9 x 52.4 cm)

Signed and dated in pen and brown ink, lower center: "Girtin 1800"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
anchor | architectural subject | archways | boats | bridge (built work) | buildings | chimney | cityscape | clock | figures | riverbank | roof | stone | village | windows
Associated Places:
England | Europe | Ouse | United Kingdom | York | York
Accessible by appointment in the Study Room [Request]
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IIIF Manifest:

Girtin made a tour of Yorkshire in the summer of 1800, which was probably when he made this watercolor of an ancient bridge in the city of York. At the time Girtin was painting it, the city's authorities were busy trying to demolish the bridge as a nuisance, hoping to replace it with a modern iron structure. Its status as a crumbling and endangered relic of a former age made it an ideal subject for picturesque treatment. The somber coloring has been related to the influence of Rembrandt, but it is possible that it originally would have been rather brighter, with more blue. Since Girtin often used fugitive pigments that faded quickly, many of his drawings have lost the impact they must have had when first painted.

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 toured Yorkshire several times, but Ouse Bridge, York belongs to a tour he made in the summer of 1800. His erstwhile master Dayes had commended the medieval Ouse Bridge as a picturesque subject, given its distant resemblance to the bridges of Venice and thus Canaletto's work. Originally, the bridge spanned six arches and was crowded with shops and houses. A severe flood had destroyed the center of the bridge in 1565, and a single span arch was erected during its reconstruction. While the picturesque form of the Ouse Bridge attracted artists, York's urban reformers considered it a hindrance and were busy demolishing it throughout the eighteenth century. In 1745 and 1764 several houses on the bridge were pulled down, as were all the houses at either end of the bridge between 1793 and 1794. Girtin had painted the bridge twice before, in 1796 and 1797, but by the 1800 tour, he must have known that the days of this venerable structure were numbered. The city had already applied for permission to demolish the old bridge and replace it with a new and more efficient iron construction.
Girtin's view owers something to Cozens in its depth of tone, bnut his coloring is darker than Cozens's, more tawny like tobacco. It is possible that this watercolor would originally have been rather brighter, with more purple coloring, since Girtin regularly used fugitive pigments that quickly faded with age. However, other influences are discernible: a plausible case has been made for the impact of Rembrandt on works by Girtin of this date. Compared to the clarity and brightness Dayes's work, it is little wonder that the latter accused his pupil of washing his colors in dirty water. What Dayes objected to most strongly, however, was what he saw as the intrusion of the artist's personality onto the surface of his work. Dayes's own taste for transparent colors has been shown to mirror his desire to keep his individuality equally transparent, preventing his personality from getting between the scene and the viewer. Girtin rejected this approach in favor of rich surface effects. Through close study of Canaletto's drawings, Girtin developed a novel style of draftsmanship that involved dashes and lines, loops and dots. In his finished watercolors, he often used this technique to enliven the design by deploying a reed pen over his watercolor washes. In Ouse Bridge, York, the reed pen has left brown dots and dashes that pepper the surface, and this distinctive mannerism becomes almost a trademark of Girtin's mature style. Moreover, his somber coloring suggests a desire to rival oil painting, to achieve the same kind of depth and mellowness of varnished oil paints with translucent watercolors. The rivalry between these two mediums was heating up by the turn of the century. Devotees of watercolor gave it priority over oil for its difficulty of use, while its detractors considered it tainted by amateurism and lamented its growing popularity. Even an amateur watercolorist like Sir George Beaumont could complain that the fashion for watercolors was poaching promising oil painters. Girtin's own exhibited work raised the stakes of the debate by demonstrating the power of watercolor to emulate what was previously thought to be unigue to oil col-ors. Contemporary reports testify to the sensational impact of Girtin's technique when his watercolors were still fresh. As one author put it, "[Girtin's] views of many of our cities, towns, castles, cathedrals, etc, were treated by his pencil in a manner entirely his own; a depth of shadow, a brilliancy of light, and a magical splendour of colours characterized his drawings, and displayed a vigour of inherent genius that promised to raise the art [of watercolor] to the highest summit of excellence."

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2008, pp. 95-98. , no. 41

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 and the Art of Watercolour (Tate Britain, 2002-07-04 - 2002-09-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Thomas Girtin: Genius in the North (Harewood House Trust Ltd., 1999-03-09 - 1999-06-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

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

Presences of Nature - British Landscape 1780-1830 (Yale Center for British Art, 1982-10-20 - 1983-02-27) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Works of Splendor and Imagination - The Exhibition Watercolor 1770-1870 (Yale Center for British Art, 1981-09-16 - 1981-11-22) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

English Landscape (Paul Mellon Collection) 1630-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1977-04-19 - 1977-07-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British watercolour drawings in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Victoria, BC, 1971, p. 5, no. 18, pl. 3, ND1928 .A76 1971 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Baskett, English drawings and watercolors, 1550-1850, in the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon , The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 1972, p. 70, no. 93, pl. 93, NC228 B37+ (YCBA) [YCBA]

Jane Bayard, Works of splendor and imagination, The exhibition watercolor, 1770-1870 , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1981, pp. 49-50, no. 26, pl. 26, ND1928 B39 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Burlington Fine Arts Club, Exhibition of drawings in water colour by artists born anterior to 1800, and now deceased, illustrative of the progress and development of that branch of fine arts in Great Britain, Metechin and Son, London, 1871, p. 44, no. 100, ND1928 .B7 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Thomas Girtin, The art of Thomas Girtin, A. and C. Black, London, 1954, p. 186, no. 382, NJ18 G44 G445 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Louis Hawes, Presences of Nature : British Landscape, 1780-1830, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1982, pp. 108, 194-5, no. VI.18, pl. 84, ND1354.4 H38 (YCBA) [YCBA]

David Hill, Thomas Girtin : genius in the North, Harewood House Trust Ltd., Leeds, 1999, pp. 50-51, no. 32, NJ18 .G44 H55 1999 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

International Exhibition 1862 : Official Catalogue of the Fine Art Department, Truscott, Son, & Simmons, London, 1862, p. 49, no. 813, Available online at World's Fairs : A Global History of Expositions (Yale Internet Resource) [ORBIS]

Leeds Art Gallery, Early English water colours ; October 8-November 23, 1958, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, 1958, p. 21, no. 49, ND1733 .L4 L444 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

Susan Morris, Thomas Girtin, 1775-1802, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1986, pp. 21, 45, 71, no. 77, NJ18 .G44 M67 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

Reading Museum and Art Gallery, Thomas Girtin and some of his contemporaries, Reading Museum and Art Gallery, Reading, 1969, p. 12, no. 50, NJ18 .G44 R4 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

Royal Academy of Arts, The Girtin collection : watercolours by Thomas Girtin and other masters : Royal Academy of Arts Diploma Gallery, London, 1962, p. 30, no. 161, ND1928 .G57 1962 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

Christopher White, English landscape, 1630-1850, drawings, prints & books from the Paul Mellon Collection , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1977, pp. 68-69, no. 118, p. CXIII, NC228 W45 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 95, 97-98, no. 41, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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