Thomas Girtin, along with his exact contemporary JMW Turner (1775-1851), raised the status of watercolour painting from a minor genre to a powerful medium that could rival works in oil. He was born in Southwark on 18th February 1775, the son of a brush- and rope-maker of Huguenot descent. In 1788 he was apprenticed to the topographical watercolourist Edward Dayes, who taught him the traditional method of watercolour painting: making a light pencil outline, laying in the shadows with grey wash, and adding local colours, generally in pastel tones of blue, green and pink. Girtin made finished watercolours of picturesque medieval ruins based on the pencil drawings of the antiquarian James Moore (1762-1799). His first Royal Academy exhibit, Ely Cathedral, RA 1794 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) was based on a sketch by Moore. That same year Girtin toured the Midlands with Moore and produced watercolours such as Peterborough Cathedral (Ashmolean) which evoke the grandeur of gothic architecture, with light playing over intricate façades.
From late 1794 until circa 1798 Girtin attended the ‘Academy’ of Dr Thomas Monro in Adelphi Terrace, copying the Italian drawings of John Robert Cozens, providing the outlines while Turner ‘washed in the effects’. Cozens’s influence is seen in the watercolours from Girtin’s first northern British sketching tour in 1796, where buildings such as Jedburgh Abbey (British Museum, London) are set in a panoramic landscape and clouds and drifting smoke lend a poetry to Lindisfarne Castle (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He abandoned grey underpainting in favour of painting in local colours, with shadows glazed over lighter areas, using a strong palette of blue and brown to emphasize the sublimity of his subjects.
In 1797 Girtin toured Somerset, Dorset and Devon, lightening his palette and using some Chinese white (gouache) to express the strong West Country light. Lyme Regis, Dorset (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), probably sketched on the spot, abandons the repoussoirs of typical ‘picturesque’ watercolours in favour of a panoramic, high viewpoint, with broad, horizontal washes of pure watercolour creating a luminous coastal view.
In 1798 Girtin toured north Wales and probably stayed for the first time at Harewood in Yorkshire with his patron and pupil Edward Lascelles. In 1799 he turned down the opportunity to accompany Lord Elgin to Constantinople to record the monuments, disdaining a salary of only £30 a year. The following year he painted the exquisite White House at Chelsea (Tate Britain, London), a sunset study in which a narrow band of land hangs between river and sky. On 16th October 1800 Girtin married Mary Ann Borrett, the daughter of the goldsmith and banker Phineas Borrett.
A monumental pair of views of Harewood House (c.1801; in situ), commissioned by Edward Lascelles, set the mansion in a rolling, dramatic landscape with lowering clouds. In 1801 Girtin showed his only oil painting at the Royal Academy, Bolton Bridge, critics noticing his ‘rivalry’ with Turner. In November he was a candidate for Associateship of the Royal Academy, but did not gain a single vote. During 1801 Girtin embarked on his Eidometropolis (now lost) or circular panorama painting of London, taken from the roof of the British Plate Glass Manufactory a the south end of Blackfriars Bridge. The plein air watercolour studies for it (British Museum) evoke the atmosphere of the city with a virtuosic technique, with details such as shipping on the Thames and tiled roofs worked with brush tip over broad underlying washes. The Eidometropolis was exhibited at Wrigley’s Great Rooms, Spring Gardens from August 1802 to early 1803, with an admission charge of 1s.
In November 1801 Girtin, taking advantage of the temporary cessation of the French Revolutionary Wars during the Peace of Amiens, travelled to Paris, probably to investigate the possibility of making a panorama of the city and of exhibiting the Eidometropolis there. His son, Thomas Calvert Girtin, was born in London on 10th December. No panorama proved practical, but Girtin made a series of detailed, panoramic pencil drawings of views in Paris (British Museum, London), which he etched in soft-ground upon his return to London in May 1802. Aquatint was added by specialist engravers and the set of Twenty Views in Paris and its Environs was published by Girtin’s engraver brother John on 22nd March 1803. Girtin died of an ‘asthma’ in his painting room in the Strand on 9th November 1802 and was buried in St Paul’s, Covent Garden.