Lot 10
  • 10

Thomas Girtin

20,000 - 30,000 GBP
20,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Thomas Girtin
  • The Dover Mail
  • scratched by a later hand l.l.: JMWT, inscribed verso: Dover Castle by Girtoin.
  • watercolour with pen and brown ink and scratching out, with pen and ink border.


John Ruskin;
H. C. Green, Cranley Lodge, Guildford, his sale Christie's, 22 February 1952, lot 102, bought by Thomas Agnew & Sons, London and sold to Sir David Scott on the same day for £86.12.0


Ed.  E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, 39 volumes, 1903-1912, vol. XIII, p. 413

Catalogue Note

This watercolour which dates from c.1792 shows a coach to Dover, laden with mariners hailing a single onlooker as they travel fast round a corner. The view is taken from a position a few miles short of Dover and the castle is drawn prominently in the centre of the composition.

For generations, this has been accepted as a particularly fine example of the work of the young J.M.W. Turner, the opinion of John Ruskin the earliest known owner of the work and who wrote extensively about it, describing it as 'a drawing of his earliest boyhood.' (Ed. E.T Cook and A. Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, 39 volumes 1903-12, Vol XIII, p. 413)

Ruskin was perhaps influenced by the initials:  J.M.W.T scratched into the lower left hand corner, possibly by the same hand which had tried to erase the recently discovered inscription on the verso which reads:  Dover Castle by Girtoin. Ruskin's opinion would also have been strengthened by his recognition of the quality of the watercolour. He wrote, 'It is impossible to lay a flat wash of water-colour better than this sky is laid'.......and 'see the way he dwells on the effect of the dust from the coach-wheels.'(op cit)

The discovery of the verso inscription, clearly contemporary, enables us to look at Girtin's early work again and see how this fits into Girtin's oeuvre. Born the same year as Turner, Girtin showed the same youthful talent. This watercolour closely compares with other Girtins of the early 1790s, drawn when he was between 15 and 20 years old.  Another Kent view, Rochester, Kent , from the North (Fig I. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection), shows the same spare and simplified drawing of mid distance architectural details, the same almost caricature depiction of foreground figures, and also a similar stylised drawing of foliage – all of which would be expected of a particularly talented but very young artist.  Furthermore, the clear interest in movement caused by the elements, dust in the present work, rain in the Rochester view, indicates the same artistic ambitions of this tyro. Other comparisons may be made with Eton College, Buckinghamshire from Datchet Road, dated 1790 (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection), Lincoln Cathedral (ex. Girtin Collection, Girtin and Loshak, no. 108), and Dunstaffnage Castle, Argyll (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Girtin and Loshak, no.33).  The inscription Dover Castle by Girtoin is difficult to attribute, partly because someone has attempted to erase it, and partly because of the curious mis-spelling of Girtin.  Greg Smith has kindly considered the matter and whilst pointing out that it is impossible to say on such slim evidence, agrees there are a number of similarities with Girtin's rather florid hand (see Girtin's letter and book of sketches at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester).

We are grateful to Greg Smith and Susan Morris for their comments.