Illustrated companion

This view of the Thames from Chelsea Reach towards Battersea has long been regarded as a supreme achievement of English watercolour, and a famous story relates that Turner himself, when a dealer told him he had a drawing finer than any of his, eventually replied, 'You have got Tom Girtin's "White House at Chelsea" '.

No less frequently quoted is Turner's remark, 'Had Tom Girtin lived, I should have starved'. It is hard to think of the two artists apart. Besides being exact contemporaries, both were Londoners; they shared a similar background in topographical drawing; and together they transformed watercolour for ever from a descriptive to an atmospheric and truly independent medium. Girtin's tragic death from asthma or tuberculosis in 1802 cut their association short, but it is difficult to see how he could have advanced upon the mastery he displays here. His washes are floated with consummate skill, their tones and gradations beautifully modulated; and the white house is rendered by leaving the paper bare save for some touches of pale yellow to indicate its masonry. In fact the paper is not white but biscuit, but opposed to the surrounding blues and greys, the house stands out as one of the boldest exclamation marks in British art.

In 1788 Girtin had been apprenticed to one of the most adept practitioners of topographical drawing, Edward Dayes, but he left prematurely to evolve a personal style based on other examples. Up to about 1794, the year of his first exhibit at the Royal Academy, Girtin executed a number of topographical commissions. By 1795 he was working alongside Turner in the Adelphi house of Dr Thomas Monro, copying drawings by J.R. Cozens that suggested new possibilites of atmospheric evocation and economy of handling; here too he may have seen etchings by Rembrandt with their simplified construction of landscape along horizontal planes dotted with clusters of detail, and broken by strong patterns of light and shade; and in the same period he learned to admire the dramatic sweep of Rubens's landscapes and the clarity of Canaletto's views of river and city. His own artistic personality emerged in the second half of the decade, in picturesque or mountainous subjects found mainly on tours to the north of England, and treated broadly and monumentally - though rarely on the large scale Turner was then adopting - and in a sombre, restricted palette that suggests something of the melancholy introspection of Cozens. The powerful conceptual qualities of Girtin's watercolours were recognised by connoisseurs and artists like John Hoppner who observed that whereas Turner 'finishes too much', Girtin displayed 'more genius'.

'The White House' belongs to the final phase of Girtin's brief career when he was working on panoramic prospects of London and Paris. Though these sprang from the topographical tradition, the simple grandeur, luminosity and sentiment of the associated watercolours show Girtin's complete liberation from it. If there is a brooding atmosphere in the barren spaces of some of his northern subjects, the emptiness of 'The White House' suggests rather an overwhelming serenity. The river glides by at sunset, its glassy surface broken only by small craft and the reflection of the house. The low honzon, subtly articulated by the silhouettes of the mill, two towers and clumps of trees, is Girtin's homage to Rembrandt.

David Blayney Brown

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.63