Thomas Girtin
Biography of 18th Century English Landscape Painter.

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Jedburgh Abbey from the River (1799)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

Following in the footsteps of the founders of English landscape painting, such as, Richard Wilson (1714-82), Thomas Malton (1748-1804), Paul Sandby (1725-1809), MA Rooker (1743-1804), Edward Dayes (1763-1804), Thomas Hearne (1744-1817) and JR Cozens (1752-99), Thomas Girtin belongs to the early English school of watercolour painting, which achieved its culmination in his work. Apart from a series of views of Paris, painted just before his death, Girtin's subjects are exclusively English, and he played a key part in transforming watercolours into a reputable and independent art form. Like his short-lived successor, the English plein-air painter Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28), Girtin died at 26 years of age before even reaching his prime.

For a list of the most important
portraitist, history painters and
landscape artists in oils and
watercolours, during the
eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, (1700-1900) see:
Best English Painters.

For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the most popular views, see:
Famous Landscape Paintings.
For pleinairism, see:
Plein Air Painting.
For the 19th French style, see:
Barbizon School of Landscape.

For an explanation
, see:
Art Definition, Meaning

For information and facts about
famous artists from England, see:
English Figurative Painting
18th/19th century portraiture
John Constable (1776-1837)
Naturalist landscape painter
John Everett Millais (1829-96)
Academic portraitist

For the top painters, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


Born in London, Girtin learned drawing as a boy under Thomas Malton, and was then apprenticed to Edward Dayes, a topographical watercolourist and mezzotint engraver. His early drawing was exceptional, containing a good deal of the vigour of Gainsborough and the range of Cozens, and while it may be true that JMW Turner recognized his drawing skills and encouraged him to paint landscapes, the former's often-quoted remark - "If Tom Girtin had lived, I would have starved" - reminds us that while he lived Girtin was the leader and Turner the follower.

Recognition and Art Patrons

Girtin began exhibiting his landscape painting at the London Royal Academy from 1794. His topographical and architectural sketches soon established his reputation, and his natural talent for watercolours caused some critics to see him as the new leader of Romantic watercolour art. He took numerous sketching trips into the English countryside, visiting North Wales, the Lake District, Yorkshire and the West Country. By 1799, he was attracting influential patrons such as Lady Sutherland, and the art collector Sir George Beaumont. He was also a leading member of the sketching society known as the Brothers.



In 1800, he married Mary Ann Borrett, the 16-year old daughter of a prosperous Londongoldsmith, and settled in St George's Row, Hyde Park, adjacent to the landscape painter Paul Sandby. Around this time he worked with Turner copying architectural paintings, many by the Venetian master Canaletto (1697-1768).

Failing Health

By 1801 he was a familiar guest at country houses owned by his art patrons, such as Mulgrave Castle and Harewood House and commanded fees of 20 guineas and upwards for a painting. His health, however, was beginning to fail. In the Autumn and winter of 1801-2 he spent several months in Paris, completing a series of watercolour views of the city which were duly issued in a set of engraving (Twenty Views in Paris and its Environs) the following year. Later in 1802, Girtin completed a monumental panorama of London - painted in oils and noted for its naturalistic treatment of urban light - called the Eidometropolis, which was exhibited to great acclaim.

Tragically, Girtin died in November 1802 at the age of twenty-seven. The cause was variously cited as tuberculosis, consumption or asthma.

Girtin as an Artist

It is not easy to explain exactly what Girtin did in watercolour, though it is easy enough to see when one studies a collection of early English water-colours. It is not enough to say merely that he gave a new boldness and breadth to the genre and expanded its colour palette, because Gainsborough had boldness, Cozens had breadth, and Francis Towne had an equally wide range of colour. But he managed to combine all these attributes in a new and personal way, and thus imparted to watercolour painting a strength and substantiality which allowed it to withstand direct competition with oils, without in any way reducing its unique qualities. Above all, his control of the medium was greater that of any one who had preceeded him.

For example, his drawings were not made in the traditional linear style, to which tone and colour were then added. Instead he conceived his pictures in terms of large washes to which the detail of drawing is added, and demonstrated an acute ability to see a painting as a single entity rather than a collection of parts. His subjects - typically architectural - are much more than visual chronicles of buildings or places: they are a pictorial expression of light and atmosphere. Another innovation was a new technique in the handling of his washes, as well as the ability to extract new qualities and beauty from the behaviour of watercolour on paper.

He was less experimental in his use of colour. While the scenery of Northern England inspired him to employ a new watercolour palette of warm browns, slate greys, indigo and purple, and although his washes contained bold strong colour, his overall colour schemes were never entirely naturalistic.

With his untimely demise in 1802, the first phase of English landscape painting came to an end. The next stage would see its transformation in the revolutionary painting and colourism of Girtin's contemporary JMW Turner.


Paintings by Thomas Girtin hang in several of the world's best art museums, including the Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum and The British Museum.

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