John Mcewen com­ments on La Rue St De­nis

Country Life Every Week - - Interview -

Thomas Girtin was born in Great Bandy Leg Walk, south­wark (sadly long gone). his fa­ther was a brush­maker. this ar­ti­san back­ground was com­mon among his artis­tic con­tem­po­raries, not least his friend turner, also a Lon­doner and two months his ju­nior.

their ca­reers en­twined. they prob­a­bly met as boys when colour­ing prints for the pub­lisher John raphael smith. Both were ap­pren­ticed to topo­graph­i­cal wa­ter­col­orists/en­gravers—ed­ward Dayes (Girtin), thomas mal­ton (turner)— and both were early com­mis­sioned by ‘Beau’ Las­celles to paint at hare­wood.

how­ever, con­sid­er­ing Girtin, as a cor­ner­stone of the Bri­tish school and leading in­no­va­tor of wa­ter­colour and ro­man­tic land­scape paint­ing, is re­garded as the equal of turner, de­tails of his life, even tak­ing into ac­count his death at 27 from asthma, are sur­pris­ingly thin. only two let­ters sur­vive and not a sin­gle oil paint­ing, de­spite this be­com­ing his pre­ferred medium.

two ma­jor post-1800 projects were the 18ft by 108ft Eidometropo­lis (since lost), a panoramic oil paint­ing of Lon­don opened as a spec­ta­cle for the fee-pay­ing pub­lic shortly be­fore he died, and some wa­ter­colours of Paris, which he was one of the first to visit af­ter the peace of amiens, pub­lished as a set of aquatint etch­ings, ti­tled Twenty Views of Paris and the En­vi­rons, shortly af­ter his death. Both projects were in­tended to free the artist from tra­di­tional de­pen­dence on pri­vate pa­trons.

the en­grav­ing of this wa­ter­colour lacks its stark grandeur—girtin has filled the street with peo­ple, ‘sto­ries’ to en­cour­age sales. ‘if tom had lived, i should have starved,’ said turner, who at­tended Girtin’s fu­neral. the com­pli­ment is hearsay, but its gen­eros­ity has the ring of truth, es­pe­cially in the ma­jes­tic con­text of a mas­ter­piece like this.

La Rue St De­nis, Paris, 1801–2, by Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), 9in by 19in, Pri­vate Col­lec­tion

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