An Appreciation: Thomas Girtin
Thomas Girtin was a British landscape painter at the turn of the 19th century. In a short life, he succeeded in raising the standing of watercolor painting to a new level and to advance landscape painting so as to set the stage its the revolutionary developments later in the 19th century.
Girtin was born into a well-to-do middle class family in Southwark, England. His father, who was a brush-maker, died while Thomas was still a child and his mother re-married. Her new husband, a pattern-draughtsman, recognized his stepson's ability in drawing and so Tom was apprenticed to the watercolorist Edward Dayes.
Dayes and young Girtin did not get along. The older artist attempted to train his apprentice in the topographical tradition. However, Girtin had his own ideas and the two frequently quarreled. Indeed, some sources indicate that Dayes had Girtin imprisioned as a refractory apprentice. However, it appears that Girtin served out his apprenticeship.
After leaving Dayes, Girtin found a job with a London art dealer coloring prints with watercolors. Also working there was another artist the same age as Girtin, J.M.W. Turner. Although their personalities and backgrounds were quite different, the two became good friends.
In the evenings, Girtin and Turner would attend the “academy” of Dr. Thomas Munro. A physician to King George III, Munro was also an amateur artist and an art collector. In the evenings, he would provide young artists art supplies and space to work, copying his extensive collection of prints or prints that Munro had borrowed from his friends. The work developed the young artists' skills and they received a small fee and a meal in exchange for the copies they made. It is said that Girtin and Turner developed a division of labor in which Girtin would do the pencil draughtsman ship and Turner would take care of the colors.
Unlike Turner, Girtin never studied at the Royal Academy. Rather, he was to remain something of an outsider to the art establishment throughout his career whereas Turner was able to utilize the establishment to support his career.
Nonetheless, in 1794, following Turner's lead, Girtin exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy.
Also, like Turner, Girtin began a practice of touring England to find subjects to sketch and use for his paintings. For the most part, his subjects were landmark buildings or ruins but he also explored scenic and romantic vistas.
During the 1790s, Girtin's reputation grew. He found wealthy patrons and was invited to stay at their stately homes. His works were able to command high prices.
Still, Girtin was uncomfortable with being dependent on wealthy patrons for his living. Therefore, he explored other ways of producing income. One such project involved painting a panoramic view of London. Called “Eidometropolis” it was 360-degrees, 18ft-high, and 108ft.long. Girtin's plan was to exhibit to the public for a small admission fee.
In 1800, Girtin married Mary Ann Borrett, the daughter of a prosperous London goldsmith. Also around this time, Girtin began using oil paints although watercolors remained his primary medium. In addition, working again with Turner, Girtin copied a number of paintings by Canaletto.
Taking advantage of a lull in the Napoleonic Wars, Girtin traveled to Paris in 1801. There he made numerous drawings of Parisian views for a planned book of etchings.
Returning to England in the Spring of 1802, Girtin exhibited Eidometropolis in London. At first, few came to see it but after a change in the advertising to note that it was a panorama, the numbers swelled. Girtin's naturalistic depiction of light in an urban setting was particularly noted.
In November, Girtin died in his studio. The cause of death is not certain as it is variously listed as a severe attack of asthma, consumption and heart failure.
Although his career was short, Girtin not only achieved popular success but raised the standing of watercolor painting so that it was taken as seriously as oil painting. Whereas before Girton, watercolor was viewed as a means of coloring drawing, Girton's use of the medium demonstrated that it could be a substantial medium in its own right. He conceived his works as a whole rather than as a collection of details. Indeed, the detail was added to the pictures after he had developed it with washes of color. Girton used a freer painting style and made more effective use of ight than his predecessors.
Girtin is considered one of the founders of Romantic landscape painting, capturing in paint what Wordsworth and the Romantic poets caught in verse. Less colorful than Turner - - the other leader of Romantic landscape painting - - Girtin's dynamic style captured moods, emotion and a variety of weather conditions. Inasmuch as Turner's subsequent development of this approach to painting was to influence not only the Impressionists but the Modern Art of the 20th century, Girtin's contribution can be seen as planting a seed that had far-reaching consequences. Perhaps an analogy would be that Girtin played George Braque to Turner's Pablo Picasso. Although Turner went on to surpass Girtin both in the work he produced and in popularity, Turner's own assessment was: “If Tom Girtin had lived, I would have starved.”
Above: Girtin's best known work "The White House Near Chelsea." According to legend, after looking through a stack of works by JMW Turner, an art collector said to Turner, I have a picture outside in my hackney cab that is better than any of yours." Turner at first grew angry but then he said "Oh, you have Tom Girtin's White House."
Below: "Durham Cathedral and Bridge."
Girtin's paintings do not have the same vibrant colors as Turner's. This has been attributed to Girtin having less of an interest in color than his friend but it could also be attributed to the pigments used by Girtin losing their color over time. Above: "Bamburgh Castle." Below: "Near Bolton Abbey."
Georgian-era Romantics were very fond of ruins because they evoked a mood of melancholy, then a popular emotion. As a result, Girtin's pictures of landmark ruins appealed to his contemporaries. Above: "Interior of Lindisfarne Priory."
Artist appreciation - Thomas Girtin