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Thomas Girtin
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Southwark (London)
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
A renowned British landscape painter, Thomas Girtin is primarily remembered for his watercolors and drawings. Contemporaries compared his work favorably to that of his friend J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). Girtin was also a printmaker and had begun painting in oils when he died at age 27. He was born in 1775 in Southwark (now London), the son of a brushmaker. Nothing is known about his early education. In 1788 Girtin was apprenticed to Edward Dayes (1763-1804), a watercolor artist who specialized in topographical landscapes. From around 1792, one of his tasks was to paint watercolors after pencil drawings of medieval ruins by Dayes’s patron James Moore (1762-1799). In 1794 Girtin exhibited at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition for the first time, showing a watercolor view of Ely Cathedral after a sketch by Moore (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum). Later that year Girtin toured the English Midlands with Moore, visiting several cathedrals. For about three years beginning sometime in 1794 Girtin and Turner were employed by Dr. Thomas Monro (1759-1833) to create watercolor copies of drawings in Monro’s collection, particularly the work of the landscape artist John Robert Cozens (1752-1797), who was being cared for by Monro after a nervous breakdown. According to a contemporary account, “Girtin drew in outlines and Turner washed in the effects.” (Joseph Farington Diary, Nov. 11, 1798) Girtin’s apprenticeship having ended, he began taking sketching tours in 1796, going through northern England as far as southern Scotland. He would make similar tours around England and Wales each summer. Girtin exhibited his watercolors at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions each year through 1800 (with the exception of 1796), and first showed an oil painting (now lost) in 1801. He developed a number of wealthy patrons for his works, and often stayed at the country houses of his patrons while on his sketching tours, most notably Harewood House in Yorkshire, the home of his patron Edward Lascelles (1764-1814). Girtin also taught watercolor painting to several aristocratic pupils, including Amelia Long (1772-1837, later Lady Farnborough) and the Elizabeth, the Duchess of Sutherland (1765-1839). Girtin and a group of professional and amateur artists founded a sketching club in 1799 known as “The Brothers” or “Girtin’s Sketching Club,” which met regularly to draw landscapes as a group, followed by a dinner. Participants included François-Thomas-Louis Francia (1772-1839) and Robert Ker Porter (1777-1842). By 1801 Girtin suffered from ill-health, thought to be asthma or tuberculosis. He nevertheless planned a huge panoramic painting of the city of London viewed from a point near the Blackfriars Bridge. Such panoramas were very popular in the late 18th century, and often were very profitable. Despite his poor health and the fact that his wife was then eight months pregnant, in November 1801 Girtin went to Paris, perhaps to see if he could exhibit his London panorama in Paris or to see the art treasures Napoleon’s (1769-1821) army had brought back from Italy and installed in the Louvre Museum. Girtin stayed in France until the following May. On his return he used his drawings as a basis to etch his “Twenty Views in Paris and its Environs,” with aquatint added to the plates by specialists. His brother and wife published the prints in 1803 after Girtin’s death. He also finished painting his London panorama, called “Ediometropolis,” a work that was 18 feet high and 108 feet around. It was installed in a London building in August, 1802, and drew good attendance. His health continued to deteriorate, and he died in his London studio on November 9, 1802. Turner, one of the mourners at Girtin’s funeral, reportedly said, “Had Tom Girtin lived I should have starved.” (TNB 7/2015) Selected bibliography: Morris, Susan. Thomas Girtin, 1775-1802. Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 1986. Smith, Greg. Thomas Girtin: the Art of Watercolour. Exhibition catalog, with contributions by Peter Bower, Anne Lyles and Susan Morris. London: Tate Publishing, 2002