Morpeth Bridge by Thomas Girtin

Morpeth Bridge by Thomas Girtin (1802)

I am returning today to an English Victorian artist whom I showcased back on June 25th.  The featured artist in My Daily Art Display today is one of the greatest watercolour painters of his time, Thomas Girtin, and the painting I am featuring today is a work he completed in 1802 entitled Morpeth Bridge.

Thomas Girtin was born in Southwark, London in 1775.  His father was a prosperous brush-maker but died when Thomas was still very young.  His mother remarried and her husband, a Mr Vaughn, was a pattern-draughtsman.   Girtin’s artistic training started when he was only eight years of age.  He took drawing lessons from Thomas Malton, a painter of topographical and architectural views.  Another of Malton’s pupils at the time was J M W Turner. It was around this time that he signed up to a seven year apprenticeship with Edward Daves, a watercolourist and mezzotint engraver.   In 1794 and 1795 Girtin and his friend Turner were put to work copying Dr Thomas Munro’s collection of J R Cozen’s drawings and colouring prints with watercolours and slowly but surely both young men learnt their trade.

When Girtin was nineteen years of age he exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy and soon his reputation as a watercolourist grew.  His style of watercolour painting was such that he has been recognised as being the originator of Romantic watercolour painting.  With fame came commissions and patronage and Girtin acquired two very wealthy patrons, Lady Sutherland and Sir George Beaumont, who played a crucial part in the creation of London’s National Gallery by making the first bequest of paintings to that institution.

In 1800, Girtin married Mary Ann Borrett, the sixteen year old daughter of a well-to-do City goldsmith, and set up home in St George’s Row, Hyde Park.  By 1801, his fame as an artist had spread and he was a prized houseguest at his patrons’ country houses.  His work was in such demand that he could charge 20 guineas for a painting.   In late 1801 to early 1802, he went to live in Paris. It was during his sojourn in Paris that he painted watercolours and made a series the pencil sketches which he engraved on his return to London. They were published as Twenty Views in Paris and its Environs after his death. In the spring and summer of 1802, Girtin produced what many believe was his greatest work, a 360 degree panorama of London, entitled the “Eidometropolis”.  It was 18 feet high and 108 feet in circumference.  It was hailed as his greatest masterpiece.

Sadly, his health was deteriorating and that November, Girtin died in his painting room; the cause was variously reported as asthma or “ossification of the heart.”  Girtin’s early death reportedly caused his friend Turner to remark, “Had Tom Girtin lived I should have starved”

Today’s painting, Morpeth Bridge was completed around 1802, the year of Girtin’s death.  He had travelled around Northumberland two years earlier and made a number of sketches of the countryside and towns.  In the painting, we see the bridge silhouetted against a starkly lit building.  Despite the gold and light brown hues of the buildings, there are dramatic contrasts of light and shade and the sky above is dark and threatening and there is an ominous, almost sinister, mood about the setting.  The great clouds which pass overhead dramatically darken some of the buildings and water.  There is just a hint of a break in the clouds where we catch a glimpse of blue sky which is reflected in the mirror-like surface of the still water and the arc of the bridge.   Girtin was able to convey drama and tension in his paintings by his clever depiction of light.

The painting hangs in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.