The verses from Cowper’s The Task are typical of the subjects chosen by the Sketching Society, for, though it initially ‘met for the purpose of establishing by practice a school of Historic Landscape’, this was quickly amended to a selection of ‘poetick passages’ that are ‘more particularly tending to Landscape’ (Smith, 2002b, p.131). Thus, rather than select passages from the classics or the Bible, the members chose descriptions of natural effects from earlier poets, which, as here, challenged them to match the text visually. In this case, the passage describes water dashing on a mill wheel and the rocks below, as well as the ‘smoky mist’ and the frozen spray that hangs on the ‘embroidered banks’:
With forms so various, that no pow’r of art,
The pencil or the pen, may trace the scene!
Significantly, when it came to selecting a passage for his colleagues to illustrate, Girtin likewise did not stray beyond conventional late eighteenth-century taste, turning to James Thomson’s (1700–1748) The Seasons (1726–30) (5 October 1799) and Oliver Goldsmith’s (c.1728–74) The Traveller (1764) (9 November 1799). Although today we are in the habit of finding parallels between Girtin’s landscapes and the work of the Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth (1770–1850), there is no evidence that the artist knew their work or kept up to date with the poetry of his contemporaries.
1798 - 1799
An Overshot Mill