Girtin made his first independent tour, to the north of England and the Scottish Borders, in the summer of 1796. This began a pattern of touring and sketching in the summer months, and producing finished watercolours in the studio on his return, which continued for the rest of his career.
Girtin was no longer dependent on patrons who wanted careful records of architectural details. Instead he worked for middle and upper-class gentlemen who, unable to venture abroad because of the war with France, toured the British countryside each summer. War not only prevented foreign travel but also stimulated a patriotic market for images of the nation’s architectural monuments. These patrons not only wanted records of the highlights of their travels, but they also appreciated complex images designed to evoke a range of moods.
Girtin invests each building with particular associations by the careful manipulation of light and weather effects, composition and figures. Castles such as Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland (no.57) could evoke feudal terror, where other ruins, such as abbeys, might encourage quieter reflection on the transience of mankind’s achievements. Dramatically lit, great cathedrals such as York Minster (South Transept of York Minster no.50) and Durham Cathedral and Bridge, from the River Wear (no.55) tower over their more humble urban surroundings.