One of the nostalgic attractions of more rural parts of the UK are their thatched cottages. Locally, there are few villages on the Isle of Wight that don’t have at least one thatched roof, and those intended to attract most visitors, like Shanklin Old Village and Godshill, may have a dozen or more. Thatch used to be a mark of relative poverty, but has now been transformed into the opposite, and keeping your thatched roof in fine condition demands modest wealth.
In this article and its sequel tomorrow, I show a selection of paintings of European houses and outhouses with thatched roofs, in celebration of what used to be almost universal outside towns and cities, before houses became uniform and drab.
In the northern Renaissance, it became popular to depict the stable of Christ’s Nativity as a dilapidated thatched structure of the type seen widely across the countryside of northern Europe. Robert Campin’s may have holes in its walls, but its thatch looks fresh and in good order.
In the centre panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi, the Virgin Mary is sat under the tumbledown eaves beside a small cattleshed or stable known in this area as hoekboerderij.
Thatched roofs were also common on many country buildings, including watermills.
Van Ruisdael’s Landscape with a Watermill and Men Cutting Reeds from about 1653 shows a small and simple undershot mill. Although these buildings may appear dilapidated with a roof in urgent need of a thatcher, its gear appears well maintained and still in everyday use.
The Old Water Mill from 1790 is one of British painter George Morland’s finest landscapes, and shows another thatched watermill deep in the English countryside.
Unlike Constable’s affluent paintings of Suffolk, James Ward wasn’t shy of showing the increasing dereliction in the troubled English countryside at the time. His An Overshot Mill (1802-1807) shows a watermill using the combination of water and gravity to power the grinding of corn. Its fabric is in dire need of repairs, and the thatchers have already made a start on its roof.
Ward’s Straw Yard from 1810 is a wonderfully loose sketch in which he brings together the dereliction in the countryside, and a menagerie of farm animals, including horses, two donkeys, chickens, and many pigs and piglets.
Marie Spartali Stillman probably painted her undated Farm Scene when she was on the Isle of Wight one summer, perhaps early in her career. It depicts a small thatched cottage on a public road (the signpost at the right), of which there were innumerable examples around Shanklin and Godshill at the time.
Finally for today, Edward Stott’s Labourer’s Cottage – Suppertime from about 1893 shows the inside of this family’s thatched cottage lit by a lantern at dusk.