Even though he died aged just twenty-seven, Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) is widely recognised as one of the most influential figures in the history of eighteenth-century British art. Along with his contemporary, friend and rival J.M.W. Turner, he led a revolution in the use of watercolours in the 1790s. Famed for his depiction of sublime views of the English countryside, Girtin was equally adept as a technical draughtsman, able to capture complex and accurate architectural details. A skill which is ably demonstrated by this view of the interior of Exeter Cathedral which was drawn in 1797.
The history and provenance of this work is well known. It is a particularly large example by the standard of the artist and is signed ‘Girtin’. It was sold by the artist to the linen-draper and antiquary James Moore, who was one of Girtin’s patrons, and it was featured in the well-known ‘Art Treasures’ exhibition staged at Manchester Art Gallery in 1857. It remained part of the Moore-Miller family collection until 1916 when it was sold at a Christie’s auction. It later belonged to Sir Geoffrey Harmsworth but then passed through the hands of various dealers.
To draw this view of the interior Girtin must have placed himself in the nave of Exeter Cathedral looking east towards the choir and altar. The scene is dominated by the soaring vaulted ceiling. As Pevsner observes, the unknown architect (the master of Exeter), handled the vaulting ‘with a sense of luxuriance, the epitome of late thirteenth-century tendencies. His work makes even the Angel Choir of Lincoln appear restrained.’ The lack of a central tower at Exeter means this is the longest uninterrupted medieval vaulted ceiling in the world.
Girtin’s 1797 painting is by far the most informative view that survives showing the cathedral interior as it was before the major changes undertaken by John Kendall in 1810-30. It is therefore a unique record of a number of things which disappeared soon after 1800, such as the box pews in the nave installed in the 1680s; the arrangement of organ with the clusters of pipes against the north and south walls, removed subsequently; and the appearance of the nave floor, before it was repaved in the 1830s. It is the only record of the colour scheme of the cathedral at this date and thus is an important record of Georgian taste.
This work is included in an online catalogue of Girtin’s work https://www.thomasgirtin.com/collection/catalogue/the-interior-of-exeter-cathedral-looking-from-the-nave
This object is not on display.