My favourite painting: Sir Nicholas Bacon

'As a medium, watercolour was regarded at the time as a lesser artform. This picture surely rebalances that inferiority.'

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

Sir Nicholas Bacon says:

I have lived with this watercolour all my life. Rue St Denis is hauntingly empty and illustrates Girtin’s remarkable skills as an architectural draughtsman. He conveys that very French style of architecture and fenestration by a boldness of delivery and yet with such a laconic touch. The result is a picture of solidarity, describing the mass of these buildings with a simplicity and yet sophistication with the briefest hint of detail—the hallmark of genius, sadly curtailed by his early death. As a medium, watercolour was regarded at the time as a lesser artform. This picture surely rebalances that inferiority.

Sir Nicholas Bacon Bt is President of the Royal Horticultural Society

John McEwen comments on La Rue St Denis:

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.

Recommended videos for you

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.

One major post-1800 project was 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.

He also produced around that time 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.