In 1799 Hibbert asked John Nash to remodel Chalfont House in his own, more Romantic version of Gothic. Chalfont Lodge, depicted in the newly-rediscovered Girtin watercolour, was intended as an ‘eye-catcher’ to the north-east of the main house, styled as a Gothic hunting-lodge with an irregular outline and a south front entrance porch with finials. From the north front, shown here, a lawn slopes down to the lake. Girtin embowers the house, which is glimpsed in a shaft of sunlight, in rich vegetation and huge trees which dominate the foreground; summer clouds, echoing the shape of the trees, boil up into a pale blue sky.
The work shows his brilliant control of watercolour washes, from the complexity of shapes and subtle light and shadow in the trees, to the reflections in the glassy lake. The white walls of Chalfont Lodge are created by leaving the brown-flecked, textured cartridge paper (the favourite support in Girtin’s mature work) bare. The strongest highlight is provided by a judicious use of white bodycolour in the depiction of the swan, which floats serenely by a weeping willow in the darkest part of the painting, bringing a dreamlike, paradisal quality to the scene. Girtin is responding to the Romanticism of Nash’s vision, to the specimen trees laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in Churchill’s original park, and by the plans of Humphrey Repton (with whom Girtin also collaborated at Harewood) to introduce more lavish, exotic planting, in keeping with Hibbert’s Jamaican heritage.
This watercolour is among the largest of Girtin’s compositions, and it has also survived in remarkably good condition, with strong indigo blues contrasting with the crisp whites and touches of ochre in the foliage.
Chalfont Lodge was designed for Thomas Hibbert’s younger brother Robert (1750-1843), who inherited the Chalfont estate when Thomas died without legitimate issue in 1819. Girtin’s Chalfont watercolours remained in the Hibbert family until they were largely dispersed in 1909. Views of Chalfont House from the North-West and Chalfont House from the North-East remain in a private collection, while a View of the South front of Chalfont Lodge is in Birmingham Art Gallery. These three are approximately the same size as the North front of Chalfont Lodge. A smaller watercolour of The South Front of Chalfont Lodge (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) has different staffage and may be part of a set made for another family member, perhaps Robert himself.
In about 1910 The North Front of Chalfont Lodge was acquired by the distinguished surgeon Harry Littlewood, the son of Charles Littlewood of Hempstead Hall, Norfolk. Harry Littlewood spent most of his career in Leeds but retired to his native Norfolk. He was a keen collector of watercolours who gave works by John Sell Cotman to Norwich Castle Museum. The Girtin has descended in his family to this day.
We would like to thank Susan Morris for cataloguing this watercolour.
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