Watermills in Europe originated with the Greeks, and by Roman times had become sophisticated sources of power for many different purposes, from grinding corn into flour to forging metal. They were ideal motifs for the landscape painter: a little bit of human construction, even technology, set amidst a river and usually rolling countryside.
Today and tomorrow I’m going to look at some of the best paintings showing watermills across Europe, through their heyday up to the late eighteenth century, when they were progressively replaced with steam engines as a source of power, and on into their decline and retirement in the early twentieth century.
It’s perhaps only appropriate that one of Albrecht Dürer’s pioneering watercolour landscapes should show The Willow Mill, on the north bank of the River Pegnitz, where it flows past the Hallerwiese Park outside the city walls of Nuremberg.
Several of the pioneer landscape artists of the Dutch Golden Age painted not only the windmills for which the Netherlands is more famous, but its many watermills too. Jacob van Ruisdael’s Two Watermills and an Open Sluice from 1653 is not just a superb landscape painting, but a clear technical account of one of the commonest types of watermill.
Since the Middle Ages in Europe, by far the most common type of waterwheel is stood vertically, turning an axle which is horizontal. The terrain here is fairly flat, so the water supplying the mill comes from only slightly above the level of the outlet. Therefore, the watermill is undershot, with only the lowest part of each waterwheel getting wet at any one time. To the right of the twin waterwheels is a sluice gate and overflow, which determines the level of water in the millpond upstream of the mill. Additional sluice gates set upstream of the two wheels give fine control over the water flowing through the mill race or leat, and can be used to stop the wheels from turning when the mill isn’t in use.
Van Ruisdael’s Landscape with a Watermill and Men Cutting Reeds from about the same year shows a smaller and simpler mill which is also undershot. Although the mill buildings may appear dilapidated, the gear appears better maintained and still in everyday use. There’s even a figure at the door of this millhouse.
In another painting from about the same time, van Ruisdael’s Landscape with a Mill-run and Ruins shows what had once been quite a substantial watermill in an advanced state of decay. The extensive brickwork was used to channel the mill race.
Van Ruisdael’s enthusiasm for painting watermills was passed on to his successor Meindert Hobbema. His Wooded Landscape with a Watermill from 1663 shows another undershot mill in similarly flat and wooded terrain. Hobbema used more staffage than van Ruisdael, though, as shown here in the couple and livestock.
Van Ruisdael’s watermills are desolate, devoid of people, but Hobbema’s magnificent Watermill from about 1664 has a family inhabiting: the wife is out doing the washing in a barrel, while the husband and son walk through their garden. It’s also relatively unusual in that the water here is fed through the elevated wooden aqueducts, making this watermill overshot. This could develop more power with a lower flow of water, because it uses the weight of water falling against the blades of the waterwheel rather than just its flow.
The first of Claude-Joseph Vernet’s series The Four Times of Day, showing Morning, from 1757 features a cameo appearance of what appears to be an undershot watermill at the left. This landscape was probably idealised from a location further south in Europe than those of van Ruisdael and Hobbema.
The Old Water Mill from 1790 is one of British painter George Morland’s finest landscapes, and shows a small undershot watermill deep in the English countryside.
During his brief but brilliant career as a watercolourist, Thomas Girtin painted this fine view of The Abbey Mill, Knaresborough (1801). This is near the market town in North Yorkshire, not far from Harrogate, and this is the River Nidd feeding double undershot waterwheels, seen looking directly up the mill race. The millhouse itself appears more of a ruin, at least in its upper storeys.
A contemporary of Girtin’s, James Ward wasn’t shy of showing the increasing dereliction in the troubled British countryside at this time. An Overshot Mill (1802-1807) shows a rickety overshot watermill used for the grinding of corn. Its fabric is in dire need of repairs, and the thatchers are already making a start on its roof.
John Constable’s contrasting view of Parham Mill, Gillingham from about 1826 shows an undershot watermill near the town of Gillingham in Dorset, which the artist visited during the early 1820s. Also known as Parham’s Mill and later Purns Mill, it burned to the ground in 1825.