Thomas Girtin The stepping stones on the Wharfe, above Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire

In the summer of 1800 Thomas Girtin toured the north of England making pencil sketches and studies in coloured wash that he later worked up into finished watercolours. While in Yorkshire he stayed with his patron, Edward Lascelles, at Harewood House, which is situated some thirty-two kilometres south-east of Bolton Abbey, and from there he sketched extensively along the beautiful Wharfe River valley. The picturesque scenery provided him with material for four finished watercolours of various river scenes, a further seven watercolours of the ruins of Bolton Abbey, and his first oil that he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 of Bolton Bridge (now lost).

The view shown in this large watercolour is taken from a cliff above Bolton Abbey and depicts the sweep of the river with the stepping stones and the rugged hilltop of Simon’s Seat in the distance. It is one of two almost identical finished versions of the scene that Girtin worked up from a small on-the-spot watercolour study (the other version is in the National Gallery of Scotland). The artist transformed the directly observed sketch into a scene of dramatic grandeur in a way that reveals much about his aesthetic concerns and artistic processes in the last years of his life. Simon’s Seat is heightened in the finished work, and the curve of the river and the forms of the cliffs are rearranged into a series of powerful and intersecting diagonals whose forms are reiterated by the abstract play of strongly contrasting light and shadow across the landscape. In his last years Girtin was experimenting with innovative compositions and this aspect of his practice is reflected in this watercolour’s unusual vertiginous perspective which heightens the sense of drama. This is created not only by the elevated viewpoint, but is further promoted by the omission of any foreground elements and the high horizon line of the mountains in the distance. Through these devices Girtin has transformed a calm, pastoral scene into a dramatic Romantic landscape that expresses the power and grandeur of nature.

By the turn of the nineteenth century Girtin and J. M. W. Turner were the acknowledged leaders of the group of young British artists who were transforming watercolour painting from its traditional association with topographical illustration into an independent and highly original art form. From their study of the evocative landscape watercolours of John Robert Cozens, they developed a new mastery of spatial and atmospheric effects that increased the naturalism and expressive power of their compositions. Girtin abandoned the monochromatic underpainting of his early years and developed a new approach of painting in local colours and applying successive layers of wash to gain a richness of tone and breadth of effect that was highly influential for the next generation of watercolourists.

This major watercolour is an exceptional example of Girtin’s late Romantic style with its reduction of the landscape into simple, monumental forms, the use of broad washes and sombre colouring and an emphasis upon atmospheric effects. Its acquisition is a significant addition to the Gallery’s outstanding collection of British watercolours of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).