From Tudor-period portraiture by a Flemish artist yesterday, I am switching today to a landscape painting by an English Artist. My Daily Art Display’s featured artist today is Thomas Girtin who was born in Southwark, London in 1775. Girtin was to become recognised as one of the greatest watercolour landscape artists of his time and a rival to his contemporary, Turner.
Girtin’s father, Thomas, who was a prosperous brush maker, died when his son was only a child and Thomas was brought up by his mother and step-father. Initially Thomas received his art tuition from the painter and engraver, Thomas Malton and this was followed by an apprenticeship with the watercolourist Edward Dayes. His seven-year apprenticeship did not run smoothly as Thomas had a turbulent existence with his master, Dayes. Girtin had become friendly with a fellow pupil of Thomas Malton and they were both employed to fill in the outlines of pencil sketches by the antiquarian James Moore with watercolours. Sometimes they would be set the task of copying drawings by John Cozens. This friend and pupil was to prove to be one of Girtin’s great rivals. His name was Joseph Mallord William Turner. For Girtin, these tasks were of great importance for unlike Turner he never attended the Royal Academy schools and these tasks honed his talent as a watercolourist.
Girtin first exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy in 1794 at the age of nineteen. He produced many landscape sketches and his use of watercolours was to establish his reputation as a great artist. He travelled widely throughout Britain on sketching expeditions visiting the Lake District, North Wales and the West Country. By the end of the eighteenth century, he had managed to acquire the influential patronage of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland and the wealthy British art patron and amateur painter, Sir George Beaumont, a man who played a decisive part in the creation of the London National Gallery. In 1800 Girtin, who had attained financial security through the sale of his paintings, married sixteen year old Mary Ann Borrett, the daughter of a London goldsmith and the couple set up house in the fashionable Hyde Park area. Although free of money worries, his health was beginning to deteriorate, Despite this he travelled to Paris and spent five months painting watercolours and making a series of sketches which he then turned into engravings on his return to London, some of which were published posthumously as Twenty Views in Paris and its Environs after his death the following year. In 1802, Girtin exhibited Eidometropolis, a monumental panorama of London that dazzled his contemporaries. It was 18ft high and 108 feet in circumference. In November 1802, whilst in his painting studio he collapsed and died at the young age of twenty seven. The reported cause of death was thought to be asthma or tuberculosis.
My Daily Art Display today is entitled The White House at Chelsea and was completed by Thomas Girtin in 1800. The scene is set on the River Thames and we see the great waterway as it flows peacefully under a twilight summer sky. It is believed that the actual view can be narrowed down to an upstream view of the Thames as seen from a location very close to where Chelsea Bridge now stands. In the background on the left we have Joseph Freeman’s windmill. If we look to the right of this we can see the sunlit white house, which gives its name to the painting. The little house glistens. Its brightness is uncanny and its glow is added to by its own reflection in the water. The position of the white house is about where Battersea Park is now located. Move further round to the right and you can see Battersea Bridge and on the other side of the river is the Chelsea Old Church, which was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War in 1941.
Look how Girtin has painted the tranquil surface of the river. It is awash with colour under the grey and pink clouds of the summer sky. We see two working boats on the water. The one on the left has its sails down as it lays peacefully at anchor whilst the other wends its way slowly upstream, its wake breaking the smooth glass-like appearance of the water.
The painting is amazing, as before us we don’t have the sun lighting up a magnificent building or famous London landmark. All we have is a small nondescript building suddenly illuminated by Girtin’s evening sun. It is just an ordinary house on a nondescript stretch of the Thames.
To end with let me give you two famous quotes by Thomas Girtin’s friend Turner. On hearing of Girtin’s death Turner remarked:
“Poor Tom……..If Tom Girtin had lived, I should have starved.”
Today’s watercolour by Girtin was much admired by Turner and this was borne out by the anecdote:
“………..A dealer went one day to Turner, and after looking round at all his drawings in the room, had the audacity to say, I have a drawing out there in my hackney coach, finer than any of yours. Turner bit his lip, looked first angry, then meditative. At length he broke silence: Then I tell you what it is. You have got Tom Girtin’s White House at Chelsea………”.
Praise indeed !