Thomas Girtin

St Paul's Cathedral from St Martin's-le-Grand

Pencil, watercolour and gouache: 19(h) x 15.6(w) in /

48.3(h) x 39.7(w) cm

Signed lower left: Girtin

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BM 186



1775 – London – 1802


St Paul’s Cathedral from St Martin’s-le-Grand


Signed lower left: Girtin

Pencil, watercolour and gouache: 19 x 15 5/8 in / 48.3 x 39.7 cm


Painted circa 1797



Probably Paul Panton Snr (1727-1797) or his son Paul Panton Jnr (1758-1822), Plas Gwyn, Anglesey;

by descent at Plas Gwyn



Thomas Girtin was one of the most brilliant watercolourists of his generation, raising the medium from topographical ‘tinted drawing’ to a powerful means of expression that sought to rival oil painting. His career was tragically short. When he died, aged twenty-seven, in 1802, JMW Turner (his exact contemporary) is said to have remarked ‘If Tom had lived, I would have starved’.


Girtin, like Turner, was London born and bred. Of Huguenot descent, he was born in Southwark in 1775, the son of a brushmaker who died when Girtin was three years old. His mother Rosehanna moved the business to 2 St Martin’s Le Grand, the street running north from St Paul’s Cathedral which is the subject of this watercolour. She married Mr Vaughan, a ‘pattern drawer’ for the textile industry that flourished in the narrow lanes that surrounded St Paul’s, who was Girtin’s first teacher. In 1788 he was apprenticed to the topographical watercolourist Edward Dayes (1763-1804), but his precociousness outstripped anything that Dayes had to teach and he never completed his apprenticeship. In 1796 Girtin made his first sketching tour to the north of Britain, finding in the medieval ruins and dramatic countryside a sublimity matched by his own powerful development of watercolour technique.


Girtin made London views intermittently throughout his career, from the picturesque, Canaletto-inspired Ruins of the chapel in the Savoy Palace, c.1795 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), to the exquisite poetry of The white house at Chelsea, 1800 (Tate Britain), to his large-scale Eidometropolis or panorama of London, which was exhibited in 1802[1]. St Paul’s Cathedral from St Martin’s-le-Grand dates from circa 1797. It combines a view of the City’s most iconic building with a lively depiction of modern life: the ethereal grandeur of Wren’s vast dome towers above elegant shoppers and street vendors, lumbering waggons and drying cloth billowing from an attic.


This recently-discovered watercolour[2] is the latest and most sophisticated of the three views that Girtin made of this subject, all of approximately the same size. The earliest is an unfinished drawing of circa 1795 in pencil and grey wash, which descended in Girtin’s family and is today in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT[3]. It demonstrates his technique in the mid-1790s. The design was drawn lightly in pencil and the shadows are laid in with smooth grey washes of varying intensity. Girtin would have then added the colour on the sunlit façades in a series of washes, working from light to dark. The foreground, with its intricate bustle of figures and stronger local colours, would have been executed last.


Girtin made a second, fully finished watercolour of this view at around the same time as the YCBA drawing, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York[4]. The present watercolour, although it follows the previous compositions very closely, has a greater fluency and was probably made a year or two later. All three works have different details in the figures, Girtin’s invariable practice when he repeated subjects. The circa 1795 watercolours are on the white wove paper which Girtin used earlier in his career; the circa 1797 work employs the heavier, flecked cartridge paper which he used in his mature years to add texture to his bolder style.


The Richard Green St Paul’s Cathedral from St Martin’s-le-Grand reflects the virtuosity in the watercolour medium that Girtin developed in the second half of the 1790s. The details of the architecture are executed in dancing accents of brown paint applied with the brush tip over broader washes. Girtin had moved away from the grey-and-pastel palette of traditional topographical watercolours towards a warmer, more sonorous range of hues, seen in the browns, ochres and light brick reds of the foreground, which gives the composition a monumentality that marks his development of the medium. The painterliness of the streetscape gives a sense of movement to the picture. In contrast to the Metropolitan Museum watercolour, where the figures and objects in the foreground are crisply defined with highlights of pen and ink, Girtin here evokes the bustle of his busy street with a dazzling, almost impressionistic pure watercolour technique, sharpened with brush-tip accents. A comic incident at the centre of the painting, where an escaped pig is chased by two enthusiastic dogs, is rendered entirely with little flicks of the tip of the brush. The deep shadows on the carthorse to the left are strengthened with gum Arabic, enhancing the impact of this part of the composition.  


Girtin has given a greater elegance to the present St Paul’s by replacing the rather rustic figures in subdued hues in the right foreground of the Metropolitan Museum watercolour with a fashionable lady in white buying a posy from a flower seller in a pale green dress. Well-dressed, strolling couples and clergy from St Paul’s throng the sunlit side of the street, while between them weave tradesmen and a man carrying a barrel of beer. The exuberant social mix of a big city is observed in many of Girtin’s urban views, including his studies for the Eidometropolis (British Museum) and his views of Paris made on his trip to Napoleon’s capital in 1801-2. The covered waggon lumbering southwards is a reminder that St Martin’s Le Grand was a thoroughfare for produce brought into the city every day from the countryside; sunlight striking the right-hand side of the street indicates that this is a morning view.


Girtin is describing a scene which he had known nearly all his life; he was still living at his mother’s house at 2 St Martin’s-le-Grand in 1795, the address from which he sent three watercolours to the Royal Academy that year. St Martin’s-le-Grand took its name from the monastery and college founded in the eleventh century and restored by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, in 1360. Its precinct provided the largest and safest sanctuary in England, a lifeline for prisoners escaping on their way to execution on Tower Hill. The monastery was suppressed in the 1540s, but the right of sanctuary, which attracted many unsavoury characters, remained until 1697.  

In Girtin’s day the streets off St Martin’s-le-Grand were a warren of small tradesmen’s shops. In the early nineteenth century it was chosen as the site of the new Post Office, necessary as the volume of mail had outgrown the old Lombard Street premises. In 1815 John Girtin published an aquatint by John Baily based on his brother’s watercolours, but with variant figures[5]. The print, which is dedicated to Thomas Girtin’s patron the Earl of Essex, underlines its topicality by stating that the view is the ‘Scite for the NEW POST OFFICE’. The new Post Office, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, opened in 1829, sweeping away many picturesque old buildings.



Note on the provenance


This watercolour has descended in the Panton and Vivian families at Plas Gwyn, an eighteenth century house on Anglesey. It was probably acquired by Paul Panton Snr (1727-1797) or his son Paul Panton Jnr (1758-1822), both of whom were keen antiquarians and collectors of drawings, prints and manuscripts. Paul Panton Snr came into possession of Plas Gwyn, which was built in 1754, through his wife Jane Jones. He practised as a barrister but also, in common with many Welsh gentry of his day, had interests in the development of collieries and lead mines. A friend of the antiquarian Thomas Pennant, he travelled widely in Britain to explore picturesque landscapes and ruins. He was fascinated by Welsh literature and collected manuscripts, including many papers of the Wynn family of Gwydir, who claimed descent from Welsh kings.


Paul Panton Jnr (1758-1822) was a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn from 1781 to 1794. Like his father, he had an interest in Welsh literature and antiquarian pursuits, visiting the Isle of Man with Thomas Pennant. He also studied printing and bought a small printing press in 1794. It is not certain how the Pantons acquired Girtin’s watercolour, or indeed whether it was acquired directly from him, but the artist moved in antiquarian circles. At the beginning of his career he made finished watercolours of medieval buildings after the drawings of the antiquarian James Moore. Girtin is not known to have visited Anglesey, but he toured north Wales in 1798. One of his major patrons was the connoisseur Sir George Beaumont, who spent summers at Benarth, near Conwy, about twenty miles from Anglesey; Girtin copied a number of Beaumont’s Welsh sketches.   


                                                      Susan Morris





Plas Gwyn, Anglesey.

1775 – London – 1802


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.


                                                          Susan Morris


[1] The Eidometropolis is lost, but there are pen and ink and watercolour studies for it in the British Museum, the Yale Center for British Art and in a private collection. See Thomas Girtin and David Loshak, The Art of Thomas Girtin, with a Catalogue, London 1954, pp.164-5, no.225-230.

[2] It was unknown to Thomas Girtin and David Loshak when they compiled their catalogue.

[3] Girtin and Loshak, op. cit., p.149, no.118i. London, Tate Britain, Thomas Girtin: the Art of Watercolour, 2002, exh. cat. by Greg Smith, p.100, no.74, illus. in colour.

[4] Girtin and Loshak, ibid., p.150, no.118ii. Tate Britain 2002 exhibition p.101, no.75, illus. in colour.

[5] An example is in the London Metropolitan Archives Main Print Collection, inv. no.Pr.384/MAR.

BritishThomas Girtin