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Works Thomas Girtin

A Mill in Essex

(?) 1799

Primary Image: TG1416: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), A Mill in Essex, (?) 1799, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 43.2 × 60.3 cm, 17 × 23 ¾ in. Private Collection, Norfolk (I/E/15).

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images, Private Collection (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • A Mill in Essex
(?) 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
43.2 × 60.3 cm, 17 × 23 ¾ in
Object Type
Exhibition Watercolour; Studio Watercolour; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Essex View; Picturesque Vernacular; Wind and Water Mills

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
272 as '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and April 2022


Phineas Borrett (1756–1843); possibly then by descent to Mary Ann Girtin (née Borrett) (1781–1843) and Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911) (lent to London, 1871; London, 1875); by a settlement to his sister, Ida Johanna Hog Rogge, née Girtin (1834–1925), January 1880; sold by her to J. Palser & Sons (stock no.15466); bought by Sir Hickman Bacon (1855–1945), 1 April 1901; then by descent

Exhibition History

(?) Royal Academy, 1799, no.341 as ’A mill in Essex’; London, 1871, no.244 as ’Landscape, Stansted Mill, Essex’; London, 1875, no.100 as ’Mill at Stanstead, Essex’; London, 1927, no catalogue; Agnew’s, 1931, no.101; London, 1946, no.98; Arts Council, 1946, no.83; Arts Council, 1948c, no.83; Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, p.126; Boston, 1948, no.136; London, 1951, no.507; Bedford, 1952, no.42; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.54 as ’A Mill in Essex’; Norwich, 1955, no.34; Manchester, 1975, no.43, Hove, 1993, no.20; Dulwich, 2001, no.9; London, 2002, no.143


Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, p.126; Davies, 1924, p.2, pl.31; Mayne, 1949, p.48, p.106; Williams, 1952, p.106; Hawcroft, 1962, p.26; Farries, 1981–88, vol.3, p.105, vol.5, pp.33–34; described in the Tax-Exempt Heritage Assets list as 'A mill in Essex, called The Old Mill at Stanstead, Essex' (Accessed 16/09/2022)

About this Work

The title of this watercolour stems from a long-standing tradition that it was the work Girtin exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799 as ‘A mill in Essex’, in which case it was a bold decision by the artist to submit such an uncompromising view (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1799, no.341). Even in its unfaded original condition, the vertical drying fold in the paper would have been a prominent and disturbing feature, and the composition itself is highly unconventional. The way that two of the sails are arbitrarily cut by the edge of the paper, the awkward relationship between the mill and the farm buildings, and the flat and featureless landscape setting all flout the picturesque conventions that are a feature of many of Girtin’s rural views of this date, including other Essex views such as Turver’s Farm, Radwinter (TG1414). As a number of writers have argued, some of this reflects the impact made by the arrival in London in 1793 of a landscape by the great Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–69), The Mill (see TG1451 figure 1), though it may have been through the engraving that Girtin knew the work (see TG1451 figure 2), and the same writers have argued that it was this work that provided the basis for his reworking of the composition (TG1451) (Wilcox, 1993, p.58). The low tone of the colouring; the empty, featureless landscape (the two figures to the left having been scratched out); and the mill itself, standing powerfully as a mysterious symbol of defiance, indeed have parallels in the celebrated landscape of Rembrandt. However, Girtin’s combination of a picturesque subject, a sublime and monumental treatment of his material, and an utter disregard for the conventions of landscape composition make this one of his most radical works and something that cannot simply be explained in terms of historical precedent.

Not least amongst the work’s idiosyncratic elements is the fact that Girtin’s watercolour depicts a humble Essex mill and set of barns on a monumental scale typically reserved for images of the nation’s pre-eminent antiquities. The structure depicted here, known as a post-mill because the body of the mill revolves around a central post to catch the wind, has been identified by Kenneth Farries at Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex, but, as Tim Wilcox has pointed out, it is more likely to be one of the two mills at nearby Radwinter (Farries, 1981–88, vol.5, pp.33–34; Wilcox, 1993, p.58). Indeed, the form of the barns is similar to what is seen in a series of picturesque cottage and farm scenes at Radwinter and Wimbish that Girtin painted for his future father-in-law, Phineas Borrett (1756–1843), also around 1799 (such as TG1413 and TG1452). Borrett, a prosperous London goldsmith, invested in property in Essex and it seems that A Mill in Essex was part of a significant commission that saw Girtin recording what appear to be generic rural scenes but what are actually the working farms bought by his father-in-law. Not surprisingly, given its personal associations, the watercolour remained in the Girtin family collection for at least three generations, and it is likely that, as with Pinkney’s Farm, Wimbish (TG1413), it was inherited by the artist’s son either via Girtin’s widow, Mary Ann Girtin (1781–1843), or more probably from Borrett himself, as the property also came to Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74). A small, later view, A Windmill behind a Barn (TG1795), is one of a series that again features buildings from Borrett’s Essex estates, possibly including the same mill, though it appears to be more of an imaginative exercise in picturesque composition.

On a technical note, the paper historian Peter Bower has identified the support used by Girtin as an off-white laid wrapping paper by an unknown English maker. It came from the same source as the paper used for Barns and a Pond, Said to Be near Bromley (TG1419), Kirkstall Abbey (TG1635), Cottages at Hawes (TG1694) and A Distant View of Guisborough Priory (TG1699) (Smith, 2002b, p.182; Bower, Report). The watercolour is extremely faded, with the blue of the sky, the grey of the clouds and the green of the vegetation having disappeared or degraded completely. No doubt the work has been exhibited in strong light, and this has facilitated the fading process, but fundamentally it was Girtin’s choice of fugitive pigments used in multiple thin washes that caused the problem. Just two unstable pigments, probably blue indigo and yellow gamboge, would have been enough to account for much of the drastic deterioration seen here, though the artist did use another blue pigment, perhaps ultramarine, for the reflection in the pond, and this gives some clue as to the work’s original appearance. A similar farm scene (TG1757), which again probably depicts an Essex property owned by Borrett, has survived in a much better state and thus helps us to understand the changes this watercolour has undergone, though it must be admitted that much of the original power and provoking originality of A Mill in Essex have remained, despite, and perhaps even partly because of, its almost monochromatic state.

Mill in Essex

A watercolour known as Farm Buildings, near Cambridge (see figure 1) is inscribed ‘T Girtin 1801’ on the back. The work, which is not by Girtin, repeats two of the farm buildings and the pond in the foreground seen here, whilst omitting the mill itself and extending the landscape to the left. The trees, in particular, are very weak in their execution, and I suspect that this variation on A Mill in Essex is the work of the same unknown amateur artist who was responsible for a comparable adaption of a Girtin composition showing Rhuddlan Castle in North Wales (see TG1304 figure 1).

(?) 1799

Turver’s Farm, Wimbish


1795 - 1800

A Windmill by a River


(?) 1799

Pinckney’s Farm, Radwinter


(?) 1799

Pinckney’s Farm, Radwinter


(?) 1799

Pinckney’s Farm, Radwinter


(?) 1802

A Windmill behind a Barn


1799 - 1800

Barns and a Pond, Said to Be near Bromley



Kirkstall Abbey, from Kirkstall Hill


1800 - 1801

Cottages at Hawes, from Gayle Beck


1800 - 1801

A Distant View of Guisborough Priory; The Tithe Barn, Abbotsbury


1800 - 1801

A Farmyard with Cattle, Poultry and Labourers Unloading Hay, Possibly Pinckney’s Farm, Radwinter


1798 - 1799

Rhuddlan Castle, from the River Clwyd


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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