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Works Thomas Girtin

An Overshot Mill

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1427: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), An Overshot Mill, 1798–99, graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and scratching out on laid paper, 21.7 × 29.1 cm, 8 ½ × 11 ½ in. Leeds Art Gallery (13.357/53).

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images, Leeds City Art Gallery (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • An Overshot Mill
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour, bodycolour and scratching out on laid paper
21.7 × 29.1 cm, 8 ½ × 11 ½ in

‘Girtin’ lower left, by Thomas Girtin (the signature has been cut, suggesting that it once extended onto an original mount which has been lost)

Object Type
Exhibition Watercolour; Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
Picturesque Vernacular; Wind and Water Mills

An Overshot Mill (TG1428)
Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
258ii as 'An Overshot Mill in Devon'; '1798'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001, 2002 and February 2020


Samuel Woodburn (1786–1853) (lent to London, 1824); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 24 May 1854, lot 780 as 'A watermill'; bought by 'Bale', £5; Charles Sackville Bale (1791–1880) (lent to London, 1871; London, 1875); his posthumous sale, Christie’s, 13 May 1881, lot 96 as 'An Overshot Water-Mill in Devonshire'; bought by 'Palser', £34 13s; J. Palser & Sons; bought by Edward Cohen (1817–86), 1881; then by bequest to his niece, Annie Sophia Poulter (c.1846–1924); then by descent to Edward Alexander Poulter (1883–1973); J. Palser & Sons; bought by Norman Lupton, March 1929; Agnes Lupton (1874–1950) and Norman Darnton Lupton (1875–1953); bequeathed to the Museum, 1953

Exhibition History

(?) Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.677 as ’A mill in Devonshire’; London, 1824, no.16 as ’A Water-Mill’; London, 1871, no.92; London, 1875, no.66 as 'Overshot Water Mill'; Agnew’s, 1931, no.98; Paris, 1938, no.114; British Council, 1949, no.56; London, 1951, no.487; Agnew’s, 1953a, no.39; Geneva, 1955, no.66; London, 1960, no.58; Leeds, 1972, no.38; Manchester, 1975, no.39; Tochigi, 1992, no.42; Leeds, 1995, no.36 as ’An Overshot Mill, Devon’; London, 2002, no.139


Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.66; Bury, 1960, p.16; Hemingway, 1992, p.23

About this Work

This watercolour, one of two similar views of a picturesque thatched watermill (the other being TG1428), has been identified as the work shown by Girtin at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1798 as ‘A mill in Devonshire’ (Exhibitions: Royal Academy, London, 1798, no.677). However, neither this work nor the other version, which has been incorrectly titled ‘A Mill at Pembury, Kent’, includes any evidence of their location, and I suspect that if it was Girtin’s exhibit then the title was designed to signify that the view was rural and unspoilt, rather than indicating a specific location. Indeed, as with so many similar scenes that Girtin painted around 1798–99, the mill depicted here might just as easily have been the product of the artist’s imagination, made in response to the demand for picturesque compositions, rather than having been the outcome of a sketch made during his West Country tour in 1797, as was definitely the case with Castle Mill, Berry Pomeroy (TG1268). Certainly, a watermill, and the simple ‘overshot wheel’ in particular, was held by Girtin’s contemporaries to be an ideal subject for a landscape artist, since it ‘is capable of affording picturesqueness to the most formal spot, and of augmenting it in the most romantic’ manner (Stoddart, 1801, vol.1, p.206). The pleasures derived from viewing mills were also deemed to go beyond ‘picturesque effect’ to include a wide range of pleasing associations, and it was this double function that presumably attracted collectors to this aspect of Girtin’s work (Williams, 1804, p.16). In this case, the artist conflates the image of the mill, as a symbol of nature harnessed to the service of humans, with a domestic scene of timeless tranquillity. People and nature are shown at one, labour is accomplished without strain, and the rural life is presented as one of sunny contentment.

The work is generally in good condition, with only a few areas of the foliage to the top having suffered, and these seem to have been added as an afterthought as the blue of the sky shows through. Likewise, the white bodycolour used to create highlights on the figure and elsewhere has become too prominent, particularly in comparison with the smoke issuing from the chimney, which has been scratched out to no great effect. Both of these methods of creating highlights were associated by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak with works dating to around 1798, and they ascribed this work an important position in their analysis of ‘Girtin’s stylistic development’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.66). Although there are no dated watercolours to back up their assertion, I suspect that this is broadly correct, and there is indeed a substantial group of picturesque subjects from around 1798–99 that are characterised by richly worked colour, often given texture by the use of bodycolour and scratching out, all of which is designed to match the thick vegetation, which at times threatens to overwhelm the vernacular buildings depicted. I am not sure about the wisdom of the authors’ use of the term ‘hylozoic’ to describe the effect, referring to the philosophical concept that matter is in some sense alive, but there is indeed a ‘pervading atmosphere of lush proliferation’ about works such as this, which, as the same authors perceptively note, tends towards an ‘over-ripe density and excessive picturesqueness’ (Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.66–67).

The lower part of Girtin’s signature has been cut, suggesting that the watercolour was originally surrounded by the artist’s own washline mount and that this has subsequently been removed, taking with it part of the inscription.

1798 - 1799

An Overshot Mill


1798 - 1799

Castle Mill, Berry Pomeroy


by Greg Smith

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