Rochester Castle from the River
Private Collection, UK
The emergence of a hitherto unrecorded early work by Thomas Girtin, in perfect condition and with its original signed mount, adds significantly to our understanding of the precocious development of one the greatest landscape watercolourists. The work is based on a composition by Girtin’s master, the highly respected artist, Edward Dayes (1763-1804). However, whilst the view of Rochester castle and bridge is a fine testament to Dayes’ skills as a teacher, Girtin’s work is much more than a student exercise in his master’s manner. The exceptional quality of the watercolour, allied to its outstanding condition, demonstrates that even by the age of sixteen or so the exceptionally talented apprentice was already capable of producing striking works. Indeed, the intelligent way in which Girtin developed Dayes’ composition suggests that he was already beginning to outstrip his master. Dating from around the end of 1791 and the beginning of 1792, the newly discovered view of Rochester joins a little noted group of larger scale compositions that Girtin produced only a few years into the period of his apprenticeship. Watercolours such as this bear favourable comparison with the work of any young landscape artist, with the additional interest in this case that Girtin developed a composition that is a striking precursor to many of his mature works.
The initial impact made by Rochester Castle from the River has much to do with the work’s splendid condition: the relatively limited palette of blues, greys, browns and ochres rings out as freshly as the day it was painted with each tone showing up distinctly against the light ground of the paper support. The watercolour’s perfect preservation suggests that it has spent the majority of its time in a portfolio, or, if framed, that it was always carefully protected from the damaging effects of light. However, the striking state of the work also reflects Dayes’ sound teaching. From his writing on watercolour practice, it is clear that Dayes had a clear understanding of which pigments are most dependable and this knowledge would have been passed on to his apprentice as he ground and prepared his master’s colours. Girtin’s adoption of Dayes’ palette in his early years means that watercolours such as Rochester are more likely to be in a good condition than the famous mature works for which Girtin often used more fugitive pigments.
The survival of the work’s original mount also allows us to appreciate the way in which Girtin’s watercolours were presented throughout his career. With the exception of the largest watercolours which were stretched and close-framed in emulation of oils, the majority of his studio works were mounted onto a secondary support with a more or less complicated wash-line surround. Changing fashions in the presentation of watercolours have resulted in the loss of many of the original mounts, but, since early on in his career Girtin generally placed his signature outside the image, the original support is consequently more likely to survive as here. Incidentally, we can be reassured that the mount was a fundamental part of the original conception of the work by the fact that an area of wash, to the lower right, has strayed from the primary sheet. Girtin clearly mounted the drawing onto the support before finishing it, perhaps even before he started work.
It is just as well that Girtin signed his watercolour because it could all too easily be confused with similar landscape subjects by Dayes such as Durham Cathedral and Prebend’s Bridge (1791, Rhode Island School of Design) or Hereford Cathedral from the River (1793, Hereford City Art Gallery). It needs to be stressed here that whilst Dayes’ view of Rochester (or, more probably, the original sketch it was based on) provided Girtin with the basic composition, it was to Dayes’ larger and more carefully worked watercolours like the Durham Cathedral that Girtin looked to for his handling of the medium. Dayes’ Rochester is typical of a small, rapidly produced commodity with a prominent penned outline, but it was his elaborately wrought and more painterly larger show pieces that Girtin sought to emulate in this work. A number of features clearly replicate Dayes’ manner and to a degree that might cause confusion over the work’s attribution. Most appealing, is the young Girtin’s treatment of the water, with horizontal bands of darker wash run over a lighter base, creating a mosaic effect against which more complex areas of reflected light trace further attractive patterns. Girtin’s handling of the sky likewise looks to a highly effective convention developed by Dayes. Here three elements - the white paper, the superimposed washes of grey, and the creation of small negative areas of blue - create the effect of a broken sky, fluid in its movement. The complex pattern of broken light which enliven the masses of stone comprising the bridge, castle and the buildings on the opposite bank again reflect the example of Dayes’ finished pieces. The light and shade cast by the broken sky define the structures more effectively and with greater variety than the penned outline of Dayes’ small scale works. The touch of his master is to be found too in the manner that Girtin treats the distant foliage encroaching on the buildings, and, rather less positively, in the dark foreground which, as is often the case with Dayes, is not fully integrated into the composition.
Girtin’s watercolour is arguably equal to his master’s example in many details of execution, but in one crucial respect he was able to transcend his model by enhancing the dramatic potential of Dayes’ composition. In doing so Girtin demonstrates that he understood the significance of Dayes’ inventive solution to the compositional problem posed by the very extended structure of the bridge at this point of the river. Turning to another view of Rochester from the north that Girtin painted after a composition by Dayes at this date (below, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), we can see the full extent of the medieval structure with its ten arches and central drawbridge and the broad and distant view needed to frame it. Other closer views of Rochester by artists such as Joseph Farington which include both bridge and castle were more successful in uniting the two elements, but their compositions are necessarily still panoramic and little of the massive grandeur of the castle comes across. In contrast, Dayes’ adoption of a lower viewpoint close to the warehouse on the right allows this structure to eclipse all but a third of the bridge, concentrating much more attention on the castle which appears consequently much closer. In turn, the apprentice Girtin who would have had no opportunity to visit the town by this date, felt free to further exaggerate the effect, creating a more upright composition. This accommodates an enhanced view of the castle which is higher and consequently more imposing, balanced by a much more dramatic structure to the right. The greater lateral extent also allows for the inclusion of the ancient bridge chapel to the left. The result is a composition that already more than hints at the greater drama that Girtin was able to invest into his architectural subjects. Perhaps even more remarkably, the sixteen-year- old‘s refinement of Dayes’ composition is strikingly prescient of later mature views such as Durham Cathedral and Castle (1797, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu) which likewise uses a bold slab of architecture to the right to compress the bridge/castle motif into a compact format.
Such is the sophistication of Girtin’s watercolour of Rochester it would be difficult to justify so early a date as 1791/2 were it not possible to compare it with other dated works produced at the same stage of his apprenticeship. Two works inscribed 1790, Eton College from Datchet Road (below, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) and Durham Cathedral and Castle (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) are the earliest of the large scale realizations of Dayes’ compositions and they are noticeable less painterly than this Rochester view. In contrast, London from Highgate Hill (below, Yale Center of British Art, New Haven), dated 1792, is much freer in its adherence to Dayes’ conventions and manner. The sky, in particular, suggests a closer attention to nature than to Dayes’ manner in the Rochester view. Other, undated, works based on Dayes’ compositions include another Rochester view showing the cathedral and castle from the north (Eton College) and a pair of Lake District subjects Lake Windermere and Belle Isle (Dove Cottage and Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere) and View from the Great Boathouse, Windermere (private collection). The works display varying degrees of allegiance to Dayes’ style, but all sit comfortably within the period set by the dated works, suggesting that in terms of Girtin’s development of a more individual style Rochester Castle from the River takes its place roughly in the middle of a coherent group of larger works spanning a roughly eighteen month period.
The question then is how does a work such as Rochester Castle from the River fit in with the still uncertain circumstances of Girtin’s time as Dayes’ apprentice. We know that Girtin, aged fourteen, signed indentures with Dayes on the 15th May 1789, promising to serve his master for seven years in return for board and lodging and instruction as a watercolourist, and that his master was paid a fee of 30 guineas. But, equally, it is clear that Girtin did not serve out his apprenticeship which should have ended in 1796 at the age of 21. It is not known when, or exactly how, the legally binding relationship with Dayes came to an end, but he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1794, giving his address as his mother’s home, and he is documented as working independently for the antiquarian James Moore in 1793. Girtin’s earliest biographers claimed that he was quickly disenchanted with the menial work he was given by Dayes and that he was imprisoned by his master as a refractory apprentice. The story has no documentary support though and it has been decisively discredited. A variant on the tale, recorded by Walter Thornbury, has a greater ring of truth about it, however. He noted that Dayes ‘treated him as a mere means of making money’ and that he ‘began soon to find that he was more than paying back by work the premium paid for his apprenticeship’. My contention here is that after as little as two and a half years under Dayes’ instruction Girtin was employed not simply to colour prints or perform other basic studio tasks, but that he also produced fully worked up compositions such as Rochester Castle. Dayes, as the owner of Girtin’s time was in practice the commissioner of such works and he was consequently free to sell them for his own profit, or, no doubt as he would have seen it, as compensation for the loss of his apprentice’s labour.
Support for this theory comes in the form of the details of four hitherto unnoticed early sales of Girtin’s works at Greenwood’s, the London auctioneers. Dating from November 1791 through to May 1793, the sales included fourteen watercolours whose titles suggest that they were made after subjects produced by Dayes, that is of places Girtin could not have seen for himself. They include views of Durham, the Lake District, Eton and two of Rochester, ‘Framed and Glazed’, with one specified as ‘Rochester castle, and bridge’ (Greenwood’s, 25th January 1792, lot 69). The same sales include works by Dayes himself and there is doubt that it was he who consigned Girtin’s watercolours, sometimes even mixing the lots with his own pieces. Indeed, the logic of the apprenticeship agreement between Dayes and Girtin means that it could not have been anyone else. Unfortunately, it is not possible to say definitively that this view of Rochester was the watercolour sold at Greenwood’s early in 1792, but the coincidence of titles between the early sales and the works discussed here which date from 1790-2, and which derive from Dayes’ compositions, make it very likely. In which case the logical conclusion is that the Rochester watercolour was produced towards the end of a drastically truncated apprenticeship and this explains why Girtin did not produce any larger compositions again until 1794. Ironically, Dayes provided Girtin with the opportunity to work on a scale and with a degree of finish that allowed him to show off the extraordinary strides he had made as a watercolourist. Later writers claimed that Dayes was jealous of his student and it is not difficult to believe that these watercolours represent the master’s attempt to recoup money from a precociously talented apprentice who was rapidly outstripping his own achievements in the medium. More charitably though, the quality of Girtin’s Rochester Castle, from the River, together with its extraordinary state of preservation, also bear witness to what has not always been satisfactorily acknowledged about Edward Dayes. His role in the development of the British school through his influence on the young Thomas Girtin, as well as less directly on J.M.W. Turner, stemmed from a deep knowledge of the watercolour medium and a skill as a teacher.
Dr Greg Smith