TOWARDS the end of his life, JMW Turner is claimed to have said: “If Girtin had lived, I should have starved”. The reference is to his fellow painter and childhood friend Thomas Girtin, who died tragically early at the age of 27.
The two shared a humble London background – and as young artists both enjoyed the patronage of the Lascelles family at Harewood House where they were frequently the guests of art collector and Regency dandy Edward “Beau” Lascelles.
Novelist and art historian Matthew Plampin has taken those facts as a starting point for his latest book Will & Tom, a fictionalised account of a week in the summer of 1797 that Turner and Girtin, both just 22 at the time, spent at Harewood sketching the house and its surroundings, competing for a commission from Beau. Coincidentally the current exhibition at Harewood is Mr Turner and Mr Girtin: The Early Years which displays 24 pieces, all from their collection – including watercolours, preliminary works and sketches – that the two artists created during their visits.
“For the origins of the novel I have to go back about 20 years,” says Plampin, who lives in London. “I am originally from Essex but I had been coming up to Yorkshire for years because my then girlfriend Sarah, who I met at university in Birmingham, was from Collingham, and we often used to visit Harewood House when we were up in Yorkshire. I was studying art history and I was very interested in the house, its decorations and the paintings – particularly the amazing Joshua Reynolds full-length portrait of Lady Worsley. I knew a bit about Turner and I knew he had stayed there when he was a young artist. That stayed in the back of my mind.”
Time passed and Plampin married Sarah, had a son and began writing historical novels. He continued to visit Yorkshire regularly where his wife’s family still live, often dropping in to Harewood – and he kept returning to the idea of Turner’s connection with the house.
“I did a bit of reading and found out that he had stayed there at the very beginning of his career as part of his epic sketching tour of the North,” he says. “He visited Yorkshire, Northumberland, the Lakes and the Scottish borders and it is generally considered to be a significant time in his life and career.”
Plampin was also fascinated by the fact that Turner, who came from very lowly beginnings as the son of a Covent Garden barber and wig-maker, suddenly found himself, by virtue of his artistic talent, in the midst of aristocratic society.
“He was known throughout his life for his unpolished and slightly awkward manner, his eccentricity and strong London accent, so I wondered about the idea of that kind of person appearing at Harewood,” he says. “Starting off close to the very bottom of society, here he was mixing with those close to the very top which must have been an extremely challenging and disorientating position for him to be in.”
At that point Plampin still felt that there wasn’t quite enough material for a novel, so he began to do further research and in his reading he came across Tom Girtin.
“I had encountered him before in my art history studies at university but he was a bit of a forgotten figure,” he says.
“It’s hard to follow Girtin’s movements because very little documentation survives, but it is probable that he was at Harewood at the same time as Turner. And once I had settled on that idea, the story began to take shape. Girtin’s watercolours were extraordinary, they are absolutely brilliant works of art and they have an unalloyed quality about them, so I wanted to make it a kind of mission with this novel to bring him back to public attention.”
The book is a hugely engaging read, depicting the etiquette and rigid social structure of the late 18th century as well as touching on its darker side – this was a time when England was slowly awakening to the crimes of slavery and servitude. An added frisson is the hint of potential scandal that emerges when the charismatic Girtin becomes romantically involved with Beau’s free-spirited younger sister Mary Ann. (“That was entirely my invention,” says Plampin who also admits to taking “a number of slight liberties with the Lascelles chronology”). The central focus is the relationship between Turner and Girtin, exploring their differences and unpicking the complexities of their friendship which included an element of professional rivalry.
“Among his peers, Girtin was really the only one who could hold a candle to Turner,” says Plampin. “At the Royal Academy while Turner was admired in competitions, Girtin was often declared the winner, so that suggests there was some kind of contest going on.” And despite coming from very similar backgrounds – Girtin was born in Southwark, the son of a brush maker – the two couldn’t be more different in their personality and approach. “
Girtin was known for being popular with his patrons – Beau Lascelles regarded him as a personal friend – and he was comfortable mixing with these privileged people, although the evidence would seem to suggest he had some politically radical views. By contrast, Turner was quite careful at this point in his life. He was much more conventional – he wanted more than anything to get into the Royal Academy; he was desperate to be taken seriously. Girtin’s insouciance towards social and artistic conventions probably allowed him to be bolder and less constrained in his creativity.
“His work is incredibly original,” says Plampin. “It was as experimental as Turner’s but in quite a different way – and his working practices were quite different from Turner’s. He was renowned for creating working outside on the spot – in that sense he was a precursor to the Impressionists.”
This view of Girtin is one with which Anna Dewsnap, head of collections at Harewood, who curated the exhibition, concurs. “He wasn’t scared to experiment,” she says. “Watercolour was relatively new as a medium and one of his pictures of Harewood, with a big, stormy sky, is really exceptional. There was a very natural flow in his work; it is much more fluid than Turner’s. They were both still learning at that stage in their careers but Girtin was experimenting more and he was the more confident artist.”
Dewsnap explains that the works have deliberately been positioned to “create conversations between them and we hope that people will question which is Turner and which is Girtin and see how they were progressing and developing.”
“I think it’s great to get people talking about Girtin again. He very much deserves the attention.” One of Girtin’s final works was an incredibly ambitious panorama of London entitled the Eidometropolis – a vast circular canvas measuring 18ft by 108ft, it was exhibited in 1802, the year of his death. Sold to an entrepreneur it was then shown in Paris, Amsterdam and Lyon before being destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1807. Plampin asserts in an afterword that today “it would undoubtedly be counted among the foremost works of English art.” “Had it survived,” he says. “It would have its own room in the Tate Gallery.”
• Will & Tom by Matthew Plampin is published by The Borough Press, £14.99. The exhibition Mr Turner and Mr Girtin: The Early Years runs at Harewood House until July 5. www.harewood.org