British Museum guidebook, £3.50
Height: 320.000 mm
Width: 520.000 mm
Gift of Chambers Hall
Prints and Drawings
Thomas Girtin, Kirkstall Abbey, a watercolour
Yorkshire, England, AD 1800
This watercolour is signed and dated 1800, late in Girtin's career. A ruined abbey is set in a wide valley through which the River Aire meanders. In the background are hills and clumps of trees crowned by a typical English summer sky of moody clouds. In the foreground, a few farmers go about their work. Individual elements often regarded as 'picturesque' are treated with unexpected grandeur and seriousness.
The landscape appears unconfined, with the suggestion of great distances extending both to the sides and to the far horizon. Yet the viewer is drawn to focus on the white stones of the ruined abbey and the river which bends at this point, its water lit, the left bank in shadow. This effect of light and shade (chiaroscuro) is reinforced by the clouds which are dark and light, broken up by the clear blue sky and sunlight.
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) and J.M.W.Turner, born in the same year, knew each other well. Both artists painted fine watercolours of English cathedrals and antiquities. Between 1793 and 1795 they worked side by side, copying watercolours by John Robert Cozens, learning from his subtleties of mood and technique. Girtin toured England on sketching trips, the tones of his watercolours developing from the cool grey blues of Cozens to his won warm browns and reds. He dies at the early age of twenty-seven, described by his contemporary, Joseph Farington (1747-1821) as 'a genius'.
J. Rowlands, Master drawings and watercolou (London, The British Museum Press, 1984)
L. Stainton, British landscape watercolours (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)
D. Hill, Thomas Girtin: genius in the N (Harewood House, Leeds, 1999)