Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Girtin, Thomas
GIRTIN, THOMAS (1775–1802), water-colour painter, was born on 18 Feb. 1775. Though 1773 is given by several authorities as the year of his birth, his tombstone records that he died in 1802, aged 27 years, and his descendants now living believe this to be correct. His father was an extensive rope and cordage maker in Southwark, and died when Thomas was about eight years old. His mother afterwards married a Mr. Vaughan, a pattern-draughtsman, and Girtin lived with them at No. 2 St. Martin's-le-Grand till 1796. He received some instruction from a drawing-master named Fisher in Aldersgate Street, and was afterwards apprenticed to Edward Dayes [q. v.], who imprisoned him for refusing to serve out his indentures. He soon made the acquaintance of J. M. W. Turner, then a boy of his own age, employed like him in washing in skies for architects, and colouring prints for John Raphael Smith [q. v.], the engraver, painter, and printseller. They also frequently met in Adelphi Terrace, at the houses of Dr. Thomas Monro and Mr. Henderson, the well-known patrons of young artists, and went out sketching together on the shores of the Thames and in the neighbourhood of London, and in 1793 on a more extended tour. From drawings left by Mr. Henderson's son to the British Museum we learn that Girtin copied drawings by Thomas Malton and Mr. Henderson himself, that he made studies after pictures by Canaletti, and copied in pen and ink the prints of Piranesi. These drawings, and one after Morland's picture of ‘Dogs hesitating about the Pluck,’ show his early freedom and skill in the use of water-colour and pen and ink. One of his earliest employers was James Moore, F.S.A., an amateur artist, with whom he travelled to Scotland and other places. Some of Moore's sketches, after being worked upon by Girtin, are said to have been engraved and published with Moore's name only attached as artist. In 1794 he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, when he sent a drawing of Ely Cathedral, and this was followed in 1795 by views of Warwick Castle and the cathedrals at Lichfield and Peterborough. About 1796 his genius was greatly developed by a visit to the north of England, the fruits of which were shown in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1797, to which he sent ten drawings, including one of Jedburgh Abbey, two of St. Cuthbert's, Holy Island, four views of York, and one of Ouse Bridge in that city. Though mainly occupied with architectural subjects, which he treated with striking originality and poetical feeling, he also made many sketches of pure landscape, recording the grand effects of light and shade upon the swelling moors and rolling downs with a breadth and power never equalled (at least in water-colour) before. About this time he was employed in making topographical sketches for J. Walker's ‘Itinerant.’ Of his fifteen drawings engraved in this magazine the ‘Bamburgh Castle’ is notable for the grandeur of its design. He early achieved a high reputation, and might have found lucrative employment as a drawing-master but for his disinclination to teach those who had no artistic gift. His dislike of fashionable society is also said to have stood in the way of his worldly success. ‘When travelling to the north he would take his passage in a collier; and his delight was to live in intercourse with the crew, eating salt beef, smoking, and exchanging jokes,’ and on shore found amusement and subjects among the ‘motley groups’ in inn kitchens.
The graver charges which have been brought against Girtin's character are based principally, if not entirely, on the unsupported statements of Dayes and Edwards. Dayes, with whom he had quarrelled, and whom he had surpassed in art, was probably the author of Edwards's statements. Girtin doubtless had an early taste for social pleasures of a somewhat Bohemian kind, but there is no sufficient proof that he was vicious, or that his early death was the result of culpable self-indulgence. The only evidence, except vague statement, is on the other side. He was a welcome guest at houses where dissipated habits would not have been tolerated—at those, for instance, of Lord Hardwicke, the Earl of Essex, the Hon. Spencer Cowper, and Lord Mulgrave. The Earl of Elgin wished him to accompany him to Constantinople as a sort of artistic adviser to his wife.
He married the daughter of Phineas Borrett, a respectable goldsmith with a house of business in Staining Lane and a residence at Islington. Throughout his short career he worked with unfailing industry and unimpaired faculty. But perhaps there is no stronger testimony to his character than the composition of the little coterie which he chose to form his sketching society, the first of its kind established in London. The members met in turn at each other's houses, and the host provided tea, coffee, and cold supper, and kept the sketches, which were made from a subject from English poetry specially set for the evening. The names of the members were Robert Ker Porter, Augustus Callcott (both afterwards knighted), T. R. Underwood, G. Samuel, P. S. Murray, John Sell Cotman, L. Francia, W. H. Worthington, J. C. Denham, and T. Girtin. And finally, there is abundant testimony as to the loving regard in which he was held by his friends. Hands more friendly and more trustworthy than those of either Dayes or Edwards wrote of his ‘noble, generous, unselfish nature,’ and testified that ‘he was beloved by all that knew him,’ that ‘his house, like his heart, was open to all,’ and that ‘he was warm-hearted, liberal, and generous as the sun.’
In 1797 Girtin had removed from his mother's house to 35 Drury Lane. In 1798 he was at 25 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, in 1799 at 6 Long Acre, and in 1800 his address in the Royal Academy Catalogue is at the house of his father-in-law, Phineas Borrett, at 11 Scott's Place, Islington. In these years he exhibited drawings of different places in England and Wales and Scotland, all in water-colour; but in 1801, the year in which his old friend and rival, Turner, was elected an associate of the Royal Academy—urged probably by the desire to obtain the same honour—he sent an oil picture for the first time to the exhibition. This picture was ‘Bolton Bridge,’ and the last he ever exhibited.
His health had broken down, symptoms of pulmonary disease appeared, and he was recommended to try change of air. The peace of Amiens allowed him to go to Paris in the spring of 1802. Here, notwithstanding the state of his health, he appears to have worked with unabated industry. Besides a number of architectural sketches in outline, taken of Paris and other towns through which he passed, he executed a beautiful series of twenty drawings of Paris for the Earl of Essex (now in the possession of the Duke of Bedford), which were etched by himself, and, after aquatint had been added by other hands, were published by his brother, John Girtin, a writing engraver in Castle Street, Leicester Square. He became homesick, and returned to England in May, and from two of his views of Paris painted scenes for Covent Garden Theatre. To this time must probably be ascribed also the completion, if not the entire execution, of a panorama of London (one of the first of its kind), which was taken from the top of the Albion Mills, on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. It was on exhibition in Castle Street, Leicester Square, at the time of his death, and afterwards at the exhibition-room in Spring Gardens. It was then bought and sent to St. Petersburg. Girtin did not cease working till within eight days of his death, which took place at his lodgings in the Strand on 9 Nov. 1802. He left a widow and an infant son, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Covent Garden. His funeral was attended by his brother artists, Sir William Beechey, Edridge, Hearne, and Turner, and a flat stone was laid over his grave.
Girtin was the true founder of the modern practice of ‘painting’ as distinguished from ‘tinting’ in water-colours. The difference is described by a contemporary, W. H. Pyne [q. v.], as follows: ‘This artist prepared his drawing on the same principle which had hitherto been confined to painting in oil, namely, laying in the object upon his paper with the local colour, and shadowing the same with the individual tint of its own shadow. Previous to the practice of Turner and Girtin drawings were shadowed first entirely through, whatever their component parts—houses, cattle, trees, mountains, foregrounds, middle-grounds, and distances—all with black or grey, and these objects were afterwards stained or tinted, enriched and finished, as is now  the custom to colour prints. It was this new practice, introduced by these distinguished artists, that acquired for designs in water-colours upon paper the title of paintings.’ This change of practice was accompanied by many changes in manipulation. He used a large and full brush, and a paper rougher, more absorbent, and of a warmer tone than had been previously employed. It was a cartridge paper, bought of a stationer at Charing Cross, with slight wire marks and folded. It can be recognised now by the line of the fold, which often greatly mars the beauty of his drawings by a row of unseemly spots down the very centre of them.
Girtin was distinguished by the breadth and simplicity of his style, by the depth and harmony of his colour, by the bold distribution of his masses, whether of form or light, by the solemnity and serenity of his sentiment, seen equally in the treatment of pure landscape and of architecture. He seized at once the general character of a scene, and by a truthful and happy generalisation conveyed his impression of it without hesitation or loss of freshness. In execution he was rapid and masterly. ‘It was a great treat to see Girtin at his studies,’ says one writer, who proceeds to describe his extraordinary facility; another speaks of ‘the swordplay of his pencil;’ and his drawings, from their mere technical dexterity, are still the admiration of artists. By increasing the range of atmospheric effect in painted landscape, by the purity and force of his artistic gift, by his feeling of natural poetry, and in many other ways, he has exercised a vast and noble influence on modern landscape-painting. This influence has been indirect, through the works of his great contemporary Turner, and those of such followers as Cotman, Francia, Bonington, and De Wint, but it has not been less true on that account. ‘Had Tom Girtin lived, I should have starved,’ said Turner, and Mr. Ruskin has written of his work: ‘He is often as impressive to me as Nature herself; nor do I doubt that Turner owed more to his teaching and companionship than to his own genius in the first years of his life.’ Most of Girtin's finest drawings are in private hands, but by the bequests of Mr. Chambers Hall in 1855, and of Mr. Henderson in 1878, the British Museum possesses many interesting examples of his work, and one large and magnificent drawing of Bridgenorth. There are also some good drawings of his at South Kensington.
Several portraits of Girtin's handsome face are in existence, one in oils by Opie, now in the possession of his grandson, which has been engraved in mezzotint. His friend Edridge drew him several times; one of the sketches and a finished drawing are in the British Museum. George Dance the younger [q. v.] executed a lithograph portrait of him, and also included him in his book of portraits engraved by William Daniell, A.R.A.[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists, 1878; Bryan's Dict. of Artists (Graves); Dayes's Works; Edwards's Anecdotes; Library of the Fine Arts, vol. iii.; Somerset House Gazette; Gent. Mag. 1802, 1803; Chalmers's Dict.; Miller's Turner and Girtin's Picturesque Views; Thornbury's Life of Turner; Monkhouse's Turner; Portfolio, April and May 1888; Cat. of National Gallery at South Kensington; Wedmore's Studies in English Art; Liber Fluviorum; Rivers of England; Catalogues of Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1871, 1875, 1884; Leslie's Handbook for Young Painters; Dance's Portraits.]