Thomas Girtin – English Water Coulour Painters

The influence of exhibitions on Girtin’s art—The difference of aim between the older and the younger generation of topographical draughtsmen.—Girtin at his worst in the exhibition picture—His drawings from Nature—The defects of his architectural work—His methods of study—He does not break with the traditional practice of under-painting in grey—Girtin’s life.—His character and influence.

HANGING by the side of Girtin’s Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire (499) at South Kensington, is a little drawing by Hearne of the Isle of Wight, from Lymington, Hampshire (1081-892). A com parison of the two drawings will enable us to appreciate the difference of aim which separated the older from the younger generation of landscape painters. Hearne’s delightful little drawing accepts the water colour medium as something distinct from oil ; he uses it as a means of expression, but concedes gracefully to its own individuality. Hearne works well within the limits imposed by the nature of his medium, never attempting to give his drawing the weight and force which comes so naturally in oil. On the other hand Girtin wants to make his water colour look like an oil painting. So instead of playing on the pellucid, diaphanous qualities of his medium, he piles on the prussian blue and the burnt sienna, sacrificing every other quality to increase the force of contrast between the hot and cold colours. The result is that his drawing looks like a poor oil painting.

The disturbing effect of public exhibitions has made itself felt. The serenity and charm of the older artists, whose methods had been calculated to give pleasure to a small audience of refined and cultivated persons, has given way to the feverish anxiety of the younger artists to attract the attention of an undiscriminating public. The difference of aim requires different methods. And Girtin, when this drawing was exhibited at the Academy in 1798, was only doing what all the other young exhibitors were bent on doing.

Subsequent generations of painters, forced to work under the same depressing conditions, have hailed Girtin as the ancestor of the exhibition water colour. In the eloquent language of W. H. Pyne, a ” gifted proficient ” and the earliest historian of the movement, Girtin had discovered the way by which ” designs in water-colours upon paper ” could be produced and ” displayed in gorgeous frames, bearing out in effect against the mass of glittering gold as powerfully as pictures in oil.”

A simple-minded person might ask, Why should the distinctive character of water colour be sacrificed to enable it to ” bear out ” against the gorgeous gold frame into which you put it ? One would think that if the peculiar beauties of a fine water colour drawing are destroyed or obscured when it is framed like an oil painting, nothing would be easier than to dispense with the gorgeous gold frame. But such reasoning ignores the dependence of the artist upon the exhibitions. When the Royal Academy was first instituted in 1769, a rule was made that water colours should be hung among the oil paintings and that they must be framed like oil paintings. Some time after Girtin’s death the water colours were given a separate room, but the Academy has always maintained its barbarous regulation about the gold frames.

Girtin’s innovations, then, were the result of the social conditions under which the younger artists were forced to produce. The need of self-assertion in an exhibition where the water colours had to be framed like oils and hung among the oils called forth a systematic and sustained effort to make water colour drawings on paper look like oil paintings on canvas. That Girtin took the lead in this attempt was simply due to the greater courage and energy which he displayed. But it shows a great lack of discrimination not to recognise the unsoundness of the aims which were forced upon him by the accidents of external pressure.

It is not as the ancestor and occasional victim of the exhibition water colour that Girtin claims our attention. We do not begin to realise his fine capacities and genius until we notice how triumphantly, in his best work, he surmounts the dangers to which the necessities of his time exposed him.

If the Rievaulx Abbey shows that Girtin sometimes made the very mistake which so many of his followers have made, namely, in his eagerness to get force of contrast he has made his work dull and opaque, yet such a drawing as the View on the Wharf, Yorkshire (380), shows how these defects could be avoided. The Wharf is no longer a mere undiscriminating transference of oil methods to water colour ; it owes its fine effect to its luminous quality and not to its forced contrasts of light and dark. Its boldness of design and the fine courage with which its admirable unity of impression is secured give it a prominent place among Girtin’s best works.

But on the whole, the student will find a better collection of Girtin’s works at the British Museum than at South Kensington. Here are to be seen the splendid series of studies made for his great Panorama of London. They represent a series of views looking across the Thames, taken from various points along the Southwark side. The one here reproduced, The Thames from Westminster to Somerset House, is one of the worthiest representations of the broad sweep of the river with its stately buildings that has ever been painted. On the right one recognises Somerset House and St Mary-le-Strand, while the Shot Tower and the wharves of the Surrey side occupy the fore-ground. Those interested in technical questions will notice that the whole of the fore-ground has been ” underpainted ” with washes of Indian ink, the local colours being put over the black in the traditional way. The unfinished barges on the river are put in bodily with pale black and modelled with darker touches. Had these been completed, the local colour of the sails, etc., would no doubt have been added over the black.

This series of magnificent drawings of the Thames is among the most completely satisfying of Girtin’s work in the public collections.’ They were probably painted directly upon the spot, and it is when he is working thus from Nature that one seems to get Girtin at his best. The large unfinished drawing of the Layne Waterfall, North Wales, a cascade pouring down a broken slope of rocks into a pool, is a splendid example of Girtin’s manly and direct work from Nature.

In working directly from Nature, Girtin’s courage and ardent temperament gave him an advantage over a colder and more cautious nature like Turner’s. Turner worked less impulsively ; he was craftier, more calculating, less frank. If we compare one of the brilliant pencil drawings which Girtin made in Paris with one of Turner’s early pencil drawings (say the study for Warknorth Castle reproduced on p. 85), we notice a sense of abandonment to the feelings of the moment in Girtin’s work which is absent from the Turner. But this facility of improvisation leaves the artist at a disadvantage when the first sketch has to be elaborated into a finished picture. In the numerous compositions of cathedrals and castles which Girtin painted in his studio from careful pencil drawings made on the spot, one finds a tendency to fall back upon mechanical tricks of composition and effect to eke out the absence of inspiration. Even in such an impressive work as the Durham Cathedral one feels that something has been missed. If one compares drawings like his Jedburgh Abbey, his Abbey of Lindisfarne, or the Peterborough and Lichfield Cathedrals (at the Whitworth Institute, Manchester), with Turner’s Tintern Abbey at South Kensington or his Lincoln and Worcester Cathedrals in the Print Room, one realises how inferior Girtin was in works that required endurance and steady concentration of purpose. The contrast is the more instructive because the Peterborough and Lichfield were both painted in the same year as the Lincoln and Worcester, viz., 1795, when the two young artists were both twenty years old. The inferiority of Girtin’s architectural work has not escaped the notice of Girtin’s keenest and most sympathetic critic. Mr Binyon, in his masterly study of the artist’s work, has pointed out that Girtin rarely ” shows an intimate sense for the stone, the texture of its mouldings, and the full weight of masonry behind it. His sense of structure is not perfect. At his worst, when he works in haste, his mouldings and traceries have that unpleasant suggestion of pastry, not uncommon with Prout. Nor, again, does he often realise a building as it may appear to the brooding imagination, a symbol of all that has gone to raise its towers in the air and of all that has lived and happened within its shade.”

But though Girtin’s genius is that of the prime-sautier, of the ardent, frank, impulsive nature, yet it is surprising to us undisciplined moderns to find evidence of the sedulous culture with which Girtin trained his powers. He did not feel, like so many modern artists, that he had nothing to learn from the works of other artists. In the Print Room alone there are some twenty or thirty of his copies—not rough sketches, but careful and in many cases highly-wrought copies—from drawings and engravings by Hearne, Malton, and Piranesi, and from paintings by Canaletto, Richard Wilson, and George Morland. The oil painters, Richard Wilson and in a more special sense Canaletto, taught him most. From Wilson he learnt that sobriety of colouring which makes drawings like his Bedgelert and Thanes series so impressive ; from Canaletto he learnt that frankness and decision of hand-ling which have made his works such favourites with artists and amateurs.

Before closing these remarks on the technical side of Girtin’s work, it may be advisable to say a few words about the erroneous descriptions which have often been given of Girtin’s methods. Girtin, it is asserted, was the first artist to paint objects at once in their proper local colours, thus reversing the traditional practice of first laying in the shadows and then working the local colour over them.

We have already seen that the Thames drawings are worked in the traditional methods. If we study the Bridgenorth we find that its richness and breadth of effect is got, not by painting objects at once in their proper local colour, but by ignoring local colour to a far greater extent than any of his predecessors had done. That he made no attempt to reverse the traditional practice of working from a grey under-painting is proved by the conditions of those drawings which he has chanced to leave unfinished. The unfinished Saint Anne’s Gate, Shrewsbury, in the Print Room, is generally accepted as the last drawing he worked upon. From its unfinished parts we can see plainly that Girtin was not in the habit of starting with the local colour and modelling it after-wards, but that his practice was even then the same as that of Sandby and all the topo-graphical draughtsmen. The only difference is that instead of using Indian ink as the universal shadow tint, he uses sepia or burnt sienna.

The large unfinished Cayne Waterfall also proves that it was not Girtin’s habit to paint “objects at once with the tints they appeared to possess in Nature.” 1 The difference of tone between the cascade and the rocks has first been got by washing in a sort of preparatory tint of brown and black all over the rocks, leaving the white paper for the water. This white shape has then been modelled with Sir George Reid. “Ency. Brit.” article “Painting ” touches of blue and black. After the preparatory wash over the rocks the shadows have been put in, and in cases where the lighter surfaces thus left required varying, they have been modified by washes of green or yellow. And this appears to have been Girtin’s invariable practice. He established the masses of light and dark in his drawing with a warm neutral undertint, and what little local colour he did give was painted over this.

Girtin’s life was very much like that of the other topographical draughtsmen of his time. He was born in Southwark in 1775, where his father was in an extensive way of business as a rope and cordage maker. He was apprenticed to Edward Dayes, a clever and intelligent artist, but a pugnacious and exacting man. The high-spirited boy and his bilious master soon fell out, and Dayes had his apprentice imprisoned in the Fleet for refractory behaviour. After this, Girtin made the acquaintance of Turner, a boy of his own age, who was employed like himself in colouring prints, and the two often copied and went on sketching expeditions together. At the age of seventeen, Girtin had a drawing of Windsor engraved in the ” Copper-Plate Magazine,” and two years later his first water colour drawing was exhibited at the Academy. His sketching tours took him to Scotland in 1796, and in 1801 he exhibited his first and only oil picture. Then his health broke down. The Peace of Amiens enabled him to go to Paris in the spring of 1802, when he produced those pencil drawings to which we have referred : these were afterwards etched by himself and aqua-tinted by another artist. The studies for the Panorama of London, and the work itself, which was probably painted in distemper, must have been done before his trip to Paris, for he died on the 9th November 1802, at the early age of twenty-seven.

His genial and enthusiastic nature had made him many friends among his fellow artists. We have evidence of his ” noble, generous, and unselfish nature,” and we are told that “his house, like his heart, was open to all.” These amiable characteristics, together with the fact of his early death, seem to have thrown a kind of sentimental glamour over his work, and critics have sometimes shown themselves too ready to ignore the distinction between brilliant promise and definite achievement. But in spite of some obvious shortcomings, Girtin’s name must ever be writ large in the annals of English art. The spirit of his work is thoroughly national. His love of the sweeping lines of the open moorland and his passion for height and space will always appeal to the English imagination; while the broad simplicity of his vision, his restrained and truthful colour, and his frank, bold, decisive handling, form a valuable antidote to the tameness and over-finish into which English artists are so easily beguiled.

In this way Girtin’s influence on English art has been healthy and stimulating. The fine early works of Cotman, De Wint, Francia, and Hunt are all modelled on his style. And as Mr Binyon has well said, “from him, even minor men were able to catch a breadth of style and harmony of colour which makes their drawings still delightful.” Girtin’s influence over Turner’s art has perhaps been exaggerated, but Leslie tells us that the whole current of Constable’s work was changed and directed anew by the study of a set of thirty Girtins which he saw at Sir George Beaumont’s.