Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 21.djvu/404
Ely Cathedral, and this was followed in 1795 by views of Warwick Castle and the cathedrals at Lichfield and Peterborough. About 1796 his genius was greatly developed by a visit to the north of England, the fruits of which were shown in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1797, to which he sent ten drawings, including one of Jedburgh Abbey, two of St. Cuthbert's, Holy Island, four views of York, and one of Ouse Bridge in that city. Though mainly occupied with architectural subjects, which he treated with striking originality and poetical feeling, he also made many sketches of pure landscape, recording the grand effects of light and shade upon the swelling moors and rolling downs with a breadth and power never equalled (at least in water-colour) before. About this time he was employed in making topographical sketches for J. Walker's ‘Itinerant.’ Of his fifteen drawings engraved in this magazine the ‘Bamburgh Castle’ is notable for the grandeur of its design. He early achieved a high reputation, and might have found lucrative employment as a drawing-master but for his disinclination to teach those who had no artistic gift. His dislike of fashionable society is also said to have stood in the way of his worldly success. ‘When travelling to the north he would take his passage in a collier; and his delight was to live in intercourse with the crew, eating salt beef, smoking, and exchanging jokes,’ and on shore found amusement and subjects among the ‘motley groups’ in inn kitchens.
The graver charges which have been brought against Girtin's character are based principally, if not entirely, on the unsupported statements of Dayes and Edwards. Dayes, with whom he had quarrelled, and whom he had surpassed in art, was probably the author of Edwards's statements. Girtin doubtless had an early taste for social pleasures of a somewhat Bohemian kind, but there is no sufficient proof that he was vicious, or that his early death was the result of culpable self-indulgence. The only evidence, except vague statement, is on the other side. He was a welcome guest at houses where dissipated habits would not have been tolerated—at those, for instance, of Lord Hardwicke, the Earl of Essex, the Hon. Spencer Cowper, and Lord Mulgrave. The Earl of Elgin wished him to accompany him to Constantinople as a sort of artistic adviser to his wife.
He married the daughter of Phineas Borrett, a respectable goldsmith with a house of business in Staining Lane and a residence at Islington. Throughout his short career he worked with unfailing industry and unimpaired faculty. But perhaps there is no stronger testimony to his character than the composition of the little coterie which he chose to form his sketching society, the first of its kind established in London. The members met in turn at each other's houses, and the host provided tea, coffee, and cold supper, and kept the sketches, which were made from a subject from English poetry specially set for the evening. The names of the members were Robert Ker Porter, Augustus Callcott (both afterwards knighted), T. R. Underwood, G. Samuel, P. S. Murray, John Sell Cotman, L. Francia, W. H. Worthington, J. C. Denham, and T. Girtin. And finally, there is abundant testimony as to the loving regard in which he was held by his friends. Hands more friendly and more trustworthy than those of either Dayes or Edwards wrote of his ‘noble, generous, unselfish nature,’ and testified that ‘he was beloved by all that knew him,’ that ‘his house, like his heart, was open to all,’ and that ‘he was warm-hearted, liberal, and generous as the sun.’
In 1797 Girtin had removed from his mother's house to 35 Drury Lane. In 1798 he was at 25 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, in 1799 at 6 Long Acre, and in 1800 his address in the Royal Academy Catalogue is at the house of his father-in-law, Phineas Borrett, at 11 Scott's Place, Islington. In these years he exhibited drawings of different places in England and Wales and Scotland, all in water-colour; but in 1801, the year in which his old friend and rival, Turner, was elected an associate of the Royal Academy—urged probably by the desire to obtain the same honour—he sent an oil picture for the first time to the exhibition. This picture was ‘Bolton Bridge,’ and the last he ever exhibited.
His health had broken down, symptoms of pulmonary disease appeared, and he was recommended to try change of air. The peace of Amiens allowed him to go to Paris in the spring of 1802. Here, notwithstanding the state of his health, he appears to have worked with unabated industry. Besides a number of architectural sketches in outline, taken of Paris and other towns through which he passed, he executed a beautiful series of twenty drawings of Paris for the Earl of Essex (now in the possession of the Duke of Bedford), which were etched by himself, and, after aquatint had been added by other hands, were published by his brother, John Girtin, a writing engraver in Castle Street, Leicester Square. He became homesick, and returned to England in May, and from two of his views of Paris painted scenes for Covent Garden Theatre. To this time must probably