Thomas Girtin’s Eidometropolis

A couple of years ago, I published an article here on the origins of the panorama. It was my intent that that article would be the introduction to a series of articles on the panorama phenomenon during the Regency. But I was side-tracked by too many other fascinating topics which were clamoring for my attention. In a sense, that series still remains a bit off-track in this article, since today I tell the tale of a fascinating work of art about which I had not intended to write. But only recently, I discovered it was indeed a true panorama. Therefore, the sad story of this talented artist and his now lost treasure will recommence the panorama series.

An account of the masterpiece in oils by the artist who made watercolor painting a professional art form …

Thomas Girtin was born in the Southwark district of London, a city he was to love for all of his short life. His father, a rope-maker, died when he was a young boy and his mother remarried not long after. His new step-father was a draughtsman who may well have taught Thomas to draw, as the boy had shown an early talent for art. It is certain that he was apprenticed to the artist Edward Dayes, who had been draughtsman to the Duke of York. Dayes worked in watercolor and is known to have executed many miniatures as well as a great number of topographical landscape views in that medium. But at that time, the latter decades of the eighteenth century, watercolor was still considered a medium for amateur artists or for coloring prints and book illustrations. Watercolor was typically used by professional artists only for preparatory studies for oil paintings, oil paint being considered the medium of high art. There were clashes between young Girtin and his master, and they did not get along at all well. It is not known if Girtin served the full seven years of his apprenticeship. But the young man did learn his craft, and came to see the value of watercolor for rendering fine detail in landscapes, particularly the increasingly popular romantic and picturesque landscapes for which England was to become so well known.

Soon after he was free of his apprenticeship, Girtin acquired a job coloring prints with watercolors for the print-seller, John Raphael Smith, of King Street, in Covent Garden. It is believed that another young artist, J. M. W. Turner, was employed for the same work with the same print-seller. It was at this time that the two young artists met and soon became good friends. Coloring prints with watercolor required a sure and delicate hand, as one mistake could ruin the print. Both young men soon honed their skill and saw the possibilities in the medium of watercolor. Both became fascinated with trying to capture the many ever-changing atmospheric conditions which could be seen in English landscapes. But Girtin had also studied the very detailed miniatures and the topographical watercolor landscapes which had been produced by his erstwhile master, Edward Dayes. These topographical landscape views were also growing in popularity with wealthy collectors as the eighteenth century drew to a close.

By 1794, Girtin was exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy, and it was his architectural and topographical drawings and sketches which first made his reputation. Girtin traveled across various regions in Britain on several occasions, often with Turner, sketching landscape views wherever they went. He began using watercolor to give many of those landscapes the rich, natural atmospheric effects of smoke, fog, mist and cloud formations which were considered the epitome of Romanticism at that time. Girtin developed a completely new palette of color for his romantic landscapes, forgoing the common practice of a grey under-wash, taking advantage of exposed areas of paper for bright whites, juxtaposed with broad washes of rich color for effect. It was for the introduction of these new techniques that Girtin was credited with the creation of the romantic style of watercolor painting, and for raising watercolor to the level of a medium worthy of a professional artist.

Girtin and Turner were fast friends, and would remain so to the end of Girtin’s life. However, they also began making friends among other young, up-and-coming artists. Even at this early age, Turner was something of an introvert, and could be rude at times. But Girtin was a kind and considerate young man whom everyone liked and respected. Most of their friends tolerated Turner for Girtin’s sake and Turner always behaved better when his friend, Tom, was at hand. Girtin quickly garnered the nickname of "Honest Tom" among his circle of friends for his genuine and upright character and his true love of art. He got the idea of founding a sketching society, which he called the Brothers. This society was open to talented amateurs as well as his brother artists, which included the coterie of artists around Girtin and Turner. They took turns meeting at each other’s homes on winter evenings to sketch and to critique each other’s work. They eagerly embraced Girtin’s proposal that at each meeting they would choose a passage from an English poet which would become the subject of their drawing for that evening. The host at whose home they met provided paper, watercolors and pencils, with the understanding that all of the drawings made that night became his property. Turner refused to attend these meetings as he was not a social man and he thought one of his drawings too high a price to pay for a supper. The Brothers met at about six o’clock, when they had tea or coffee and read over the poetical passage which had been selected for the evening. By about seven o’clock they would set to work, until about ten o’clock, when a cold supper was served. After that short break, they would work until about midnight, when the meeting broke up.

In 1800, Thomas Girtin married the daughter of a prosperous London goldsmith, Mary Ann Borrett. He was twenty-five and she was sixteen. He and his new bride set up house in St. George’s Row, in London, in an area were several other artists lived. He was occasionally out of London over the course of the next year, when he was invited to the country homes of some of his wealthy patrons, who were, by then, paying him twenty guineas or more for a painting of their grounds or the surrounding countryside. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to find enough wealthy patrons to make ends meet. He would soon have a growing family to support, since, by then, his wife was expecting a child. To compound his difficulties, Girtin’s health, never robust, was beginning to deteriorate. He wanted to stay in London and he needed a steady income to support himself and his family.

Though he would have been only a teenager when it was shown, Girtin would certainly have been aware of Robert Barker’s famous Panorama of London, which had been exhibited so very successfully in the early 1790s. Another of Girtin’s friends, a member of the Brothers sketching society, Robert Ker Porter, had also painted and successfully exhibited several panoramas of various subjects. A number of art historians believe that Porter encouraged Girtin to try his hand at painting a panorama, which was all the rage at the time, as a means of supporting his growing family. Whatever the impetus, Girtin did decide to take a chance and paint a panorama for exhibition. Girtin chose as his subject the location most dear to his heart, the place where he had roamed nearly every street and square since his youth, the metropolis of London.

First, Girtin had to chose a vantage point from which to make his sketches and studies for a 360-degree view of the city. He was determined to center his panoramic view of the city in Southwark, the district where he had been born. It was one of the oldest sections of the city, its landmarks well known to all Londoners. Robert Barker had also chosen Southwark, but he had used the roof of the famous steam-powered Albion Flour Mills as the vantage point for his own panorama of the city, which he had painted in 1790. But the flour mills had burned to the ground the following year. Instead, Girtin requested and was granted, permission to use the roof of the British Plate Glass Manufactory Company’s warehouse. It was located on the south-west side of Blackfriars Bridge, almost opposite the ruins of the Albion Flour Mills where Barker had worked, and just across the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though by now his asthma was becoming more severe, he labored atop the glass warehouse roof for long hours everyday, weather permitting, for over three months, until he had drawn correct topographical views of every vista he could see in a full 360 degrees from his elevated platform.

Once his drawings were completed, Girtin arranged with John Samuel Hayward for the use of his premises, at 37 Newington Causeway, also in Southwark. Hayward was an amateur artist and had become acquainted with Turner and Porter, among other artist friends of Girtin. More importantly, he was a professional floor-cloth manufacturer and had a large space available which could be used for the painting of a panorama. Here, on an enormous canvas which measured 18 feet high and 108 feet long, Girtin began painting his panorama of London, in oil paints, with Hayward serving as his assistant. Robert Barker had painted his London panorama in distemper paints, which were rather fragile, but were a good medium for temporary paintings. In addition, the colors tended to change a great deal as they dried. Oil colors were stronger, longer-lasting, and though they took longer to dry, they dried much closer to the original color than did distemper paints. Oils were an eminently superior medium for Girtin’s purposes and they better suited his painting style, which had been honed using watercolors.

As the painting of the panorama was being completed at Hayward’s floor-cloth manufactory, in September of 1801, the final details of the peace accords between Britain and France were being hammered out. The preliminary agreement of the Treaty of Amiens was published in Britain on the last day of that month. With the hostilities which had existed between England and France for so many years, there was much pent-up interest in the city of Paris at this time, since it had been difficult for the English to travel in France. Soon after the peace agreement was made public in England, Thomas Girtin decided to travel to Paris, partly on the advice of his doctor, who hoped the change of climate would improve Girtin’s asthma. Ostensibly, he traveled to the French capital to sketch views of the city which he could use to create paintings that he could sell once he returned to England. But it seems that his true plan was to use his sketches and studies to create a second panorama, this time a panorama of Paris. Reasoning that many in France were as interested in the English capital as his countrymen were in the French one, there are suggestions that while he was in Paris, Girtin looked into the possibility that he might be able to exhibit his London panorama there, where it might garner a larger audience and thus earn him a better return on his investment of time and effort. He remained in Paris until the spring of 1802, traveling home with his many sketches and drawings of the city, eager to set to work on his new panorama.

Not long before he left Paris, Girtin heard a rumor that Hayward, the same man who had helped him with the painting of the London panorama, was then at work with another artist, painting a panorama of Paris. Girtin wrote to his older brother, Jack, before he left Paris, asking him to find out if the rumor were true and to try to learn the details of the painting, if it was. There are no surviving letters from Jack Girtin in reply to his brother Tom, but more than likely Jack had discovered that Hayward was indeed assisting another artist with the painting of a panorama of Paris. The artist who Hayward was assisting was James De Maria, the half-Italian friend of J. M. W. Turner. Though not as skilled a landscape painter as Girtin, De Maria was well-versed in the techniques of panorama production. But this new panorama painting of Paris had only been begun recently and there was still much work to be done. It would be some time before it was ready for exhibition.

It is not known if Girtin was able to make any satisfactory arrangements while he was in Paris to exhibit his London panorama there. Regardless, since he was probably aware of De Maria’s and Hayward’s work on a panorama of the French capital, he decided to go ahead with the local exhibition of the London panorama he had completed before traveling to France. He entitled his work Eidometropolis, which translates from Greek as "View of the Mother City." Due to its enormous size, he needed a very large room to properly display it. In that summer of 1802, another panorama, The Battle of Alexandria, by the artist Samuel James Arnold, was on exhibition in the Great Room at Spring Gardens. But its run ended in late July and Girtin was able to secure the space for his grand Eidometropolis from the proprietor, Mr. Wigley.

On Monday, 2 August 1802, Thomas Girtin placed the following announcement in the Morning Post and Gazetteer:

T. Girtin most respectfully begs leave to inform his friends and the public in general that his GREAT PICTURE OF LONDON 108 feet long and 18 feet high, taken from the top of the British Plate Glass Manufactory near Blackfriars Bridge, comprehending London and its environs will if Mr. Girtin’s health permits, be open for exhibition This day, August 2, at Mr. Wigley’s Great Room, Spring Gardens.

The exhibition was open each day from 9:00am to dusk, and admission was one shilling. Initially, attendance was slow, and Girtin, working away in his studio, making a series of engravings of views of Paris based on the sketches he had done while abroad, was very disappointed. However, within a few weeks, Girtin learned that his first newspaper advertisement had been misunderstood, the public believing he was exhibiting a single, framed painting. Once he realized his first announcement had left out that all-important buzz-word "panorama," he rectified the oversight by placing another advertisement, this one in The Times, on 25 August:

Eidometropolis, a great picture of London, Westminster and its environs now exhibiting at the Great Room, Spring Gardens. Admission 1s. T. Girtin returns his most grateful thanks to a generous public for the encouragement given to his exhibition, and as it has been conceived to be merely a picture framed, he further begs leave to request the notice that it is a Panorama, and from its magnitude which contains 1944 square feet, gives every object the appearance of being the size of nature. The situation is so close as to show to the greatest advantage the Thames, Somerset House, Temple Gardens, all the churches, bridges, principal buildings, etc., with the surrounding country to the remotest distance, interspersed with a variety of objects characteristic of this great Metropolis. His views of Paris, etched by himself, are in great forwardness, and to be seen with the picture above.

Almost immediately, the numbers who came to view the panorama went up and stayed up for weeks. In addition, the panorama received a number of favorable reviews in various newspapers and journals regarding the exceptionally natural appearance of all the objects in this new 360-degree view of London. These consistently positive reviews had the effect of increasing attendance even more. Not only did Girtin also exhibit copies of his etched views of Paris at the Great Room, he promised they would be published before the end of the year and offered subscriptions to those who were interested. In addition, he posted a notice advising his patrons that he would be exhibiting a panorama of the city of Paris the following year. At the end of September, Girtin placed another advertisement for his panorama, this time advising the public that it would be on view at Spring Gardens for some time, " … until it went abroad." This would seem to indicate that he had at last made arrangements to show the London panorama in Paris.

While the Eidometropolis was on display, Girtin spent hours in his studio, a room above Norman’s Carving and Gilding shop, at 441 The Strand, completing the etchings from his Paris sketches and planning his new Parisian panorama. But each day was a greater effort for him, as his asthma was becoming increasingly worse. Eventually, his wife demanded that he see a doctor, and called in Dr. Munro, a friend and patron, to examine him. Reportedly, Girtin said to the doctor, "I don’t care what you do to me, if you will only put me in such a way that I can continue to make drawings." A dedicated artist and a committed family man, Girtin drove himself on, forcing himself to complete his Paris etchings for publication and planning his Parisian panorama, in order to provide for his family. But even his fierce will was no match for his illness and on Tuesday, 9 November 1802, Thomas Girtin died in his studio at the age of twenty-seven. He was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Church, in Covent Garden. Among a number of other artists, Girtin’s life-long friend, Turner, was one of the mourners at his funeral, along with most of the members of the Brothers sketching society. It is said that Turner became increasingly selfish, surly and uncouth after the passing of his dear friend, whom he forever after called "Poor Tom." Much later in his life, Turner, who had great respect for Girtin’s talent, is reported to have said that he would have starved, if "Poor Tom" Girtin had lived.

From the Tuesday on which Thomas Girtin died, until the day after his funeral, the Great Room at Spring Gardens was closed to the public. The exhibition of the Eidometropolis was then re-opened, with an announcement in the newspapers that it was open as benefit for his young widow and infant son. The public was urged to visit the panorama and to subscribe to the publication of the series of etchings of views of Paris, " … a work he had just lived to complete." The exhibition of the Eidometropolis was closed permanently on 31 December 1802. One of Girtin’s friends, Henry Bates Dudley, wrote an open letter which was published in the Morning Herald in December 1802, urging the government to purchase the panorama after the exhibition closed, as a valuable and detailed archive of the appearance of London at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The government did not elect to purchase the Eidometropolis and the enormous canvas was taken down, rolled up and stored away. It may have been stored first in Girtin’s studio over the carver and gilder’s shop in The Strand, possibly with the hope of transporting it to Paris for exhibition there, as Girtin had hoped. But only a few short weeks later, the peace brought about by the Treaty of Amiens collapsed and Britain and France were once again at war. All hope of foreign exhibition of the panorama was abandoned. It is not known if Girtin’s widow made any attempt to exhibit it in some of the larger cities of Britain, which was often done with panoramas after they had completed their London run. But if she did, those attempts were unsuccessful, and the Eidometropolis was never displayed again.

Though Thomas Girtin did not live to complete his panorama of Paris, the panorama which De Maria and Hayward were still laboring over at the time of Girtin’s death was finished early the following year. The vantage point of this panorama was the north-west tower of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was exhibited in the spring and summer of 1803, at the Haymarket, in a building next door to the Opera House and drew very large crowds. This panorama would have been in competition with Girtin’s, had he lived to paint his own. But in the end, this panorama may have done his family a good turn, as it kept interest in Paris alive and may have contributed to the sales of Girtin’s book of views of Paris.

Eventually the Eidometropolis was stored in a loft above the carpenter’s shop of Mr. Howitt, in St. Martin’s Lane, where it lay untouched until 1825. At about that time, it was sold at auction by Mr. E. Cohen, who had married Girtin’s widow. Some sources say that it was sold to a Russian nobleman, who took it to St. Petersburg, where it was put on display. But there are no records of such a panorama ever having been displayed anywhere in Russia and Russian art historians discount the notion. There are other scholars who believe that Girtin’s Eidometropolis was purchased by his old friend and fellow sketching society "Brother," Robert Ker Porter. Having traveled to Spain in 1808, Porter went on to become a noted author and diplomat, becoming a man of means and avid collector of objets d’art. Porter had spent a great deal of time traveling and working as a diplomat in Russia, to the point that some took him for a Russian. He returned to England not long before the Eidometropolis went on the auction block. As a panorama artist himself, and in remembrance of his good friend Tom Girtin, did Porter buy the London panorama? If so, what did he do with it? Whether it went to Russia or stayed in England, the Eidometropolis disappeared from the annals of history after 1825. Was it destroyed or is there some chance it may yet come to light? Porter wrote extensively, on many subjects, and may have written about the Eidometropolis, if he did indeed purchase it. But unfortunately, all of his papers, which were deposited in the British Museum after his death, were destroyed by a bomb during World War II.

Why did I not intend to write about the Eidometropolis as part of my series on panoramas? Because, until recently, I did not believe it to be a panorama with a true 360-degree view. Sometime before the Eidometropolis was taken down from the Great Room at Spring Gardens, Louis Francia, another member of the Brothers sketching society, made a detailed drawing of what he claimed to be the complete panorama. He published an etching of his drawing in January of 1803. But the etching was very condensed at the southern section, to the point that several buildings and landmarks were not visible. A handful of Girtin’s original sketches for the London panorama survive, some still in the possession of his descendants, but none had been found for the portion which is missing in Francia’s etching. This led art historians to believe that Girtin’s panorama was either semi-circular or horse-shoe in shape, not a full 360-degree view of the city. Then, in December 1965, a sketch came up for sale at Sotheby’s auction house labeled "School of Thomas Girtin." After close examination by experts, not only was the sketch determined to be by Girtin himself, it was clearly one of the sketches for the Eidometropolis. Even more importantly, all of the buildings and landmarks which were missing in Francia’s 1803 etching were present in this newly discovered sketch, proving the Eidometropolis was a full 360-degree panorama. I became aware of all of this when I happened upon a rare publication by the London Topographical Society in a used bookstore. This publication was devoted to the London panoramas of both Robert Barker and Thomas Girtin. Though Girtin’s Eidometropolis may be lost, I decided the story of his work should be made available online for those who may be interested in this special masterpiece by a gifted artist.

But, you say, the Eidometropolis was painted and exhibited nearly a decade before the Prince of Wales became Regent. Yes, it was, but many adults living during the Regency would have known of it, and many of them would have gone to the Great Room in Spring Gardens in their youth to see and marvel at Girtin’s accurate and naturalistic representation of his "Mother City." Those who remembered it well would have compared other panoramas of London to it, and in many cases would have found those other panoramas wanting. And might some Regency character in some Regency novel find the rolled Eidometropolis in Mr. Howitt’s loft? If they did, how might it figure in the story?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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11 Responses to Thomas Girtin’s Eidometropolis

  1. ….or indeed a later story almost begs to be written about a forgery of it, or maybe surviving parts of it…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Good ideas! It had to have been intact throughout the Regency, since it was sold complete in 1825. Who knows what could happen to it, fictitiously, of course, during that time? Let your imagination go!

      =^..^=

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  4. Cari Hislop says:

    I was expecting to read that his widow had chopped up the painting and sold the interesting views as individual paintings. A sad story, but I’m so glad you shared it. I so wish we knew where it was. One of these not too distant days when I’m less fat I’m going to climb all the stairs to the top of the Monument and experience a real panoramic view of London. I hadn’t actually known about the panoramic paintings…how did I miss that? Who knows! I know now. Thank you for sharing!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Though his widow was very young when he died, barely nineteen, with an infant son, from what I can tell, she had much respect for his work. I do not think she would have ever considered cutting it up. Plus, I think, at least initially, she was hoping to send it on tour, either to France or around England. It just worked out that that never happened.

      Some years ago, an early nineteenth-century panorama of Versailles was found in the attic of an old house in New York. It was somewhat the worse for wear, but it has been restored and is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I continue to hope that Girtin’s London panorama may yet be found intact somewhere.

      Even though panoramas were all the rage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they had rapidly fallen out of fashion after the 1890s. Soon thereafter the motion picture came on the scene, so it is to be expected that few of us living today are aware of the panorama, since even our grandparents probably never saw one. Panoramas were advertized in newspapers of the time, and sometimes mentioned in letters and diaries, but few of us peruse those documents today, so the panorama has slipped away from our collective memory. But it has such potential for novels with a Regency setting that I felt it deserved to be made note of for those authors who might be interested in capitalizing on that potential.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Cari Hislop says:

        Now I’ll definitely have to have to visit New York some day. That panorama of Versailles will be near the top of my itinerary after I visit the Frick museum to see the transplanted Fragonard room with all his paintings of lovers (the letter being my favorite). Panning back to the Georgians; they never cease to amaze me with their inventive entertainments which always seemed to be made into an “experience”. Even attending the play house…today we go to watch something, but really they’d go to be a part of something. Thanks for the feedback!

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