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Works Thomas Girtin

The Frozen Watermill, from William Cowper's The Task


Primary Image: TG1501: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Frozen Watermill, from William Cowper's 'The Task', 1799, graphite and watercolour on wove paper, 22.5 × 30.1 cm, 8 ⅞ × 11 ⅞ in. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (62.78C).

Photo courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (All Rights Reserved)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Frozen Watermill, from William Cowper's The Task
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
22.5 × 30.1 cm, 8 ⅞ × 11 ⅞ in

‘Cowper’s Task. Book 5. T. Girtin Sept 28. 1799’ on the back, by George Samuel

Object Type
Sketching Society Drawing
Subject Terms
Literary Subject; Wind and Water Mills

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
331 as 'The Frozen Watermill'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


George Samuel (active 1785–1823); given to Thomas Worthington; then by descent to Mrs George Abercrombie (lent to Cambridge, 1920); then by descent; Sotheby’s, 14 November 1962, lot 49; bought by Thos. Agnew & Sons; bought from them, 1962

Exhibition History

Cambridge, 1920, no.24; Huntington, 1993, no catalogue


Guillemard, 1922, pp.191–95; Winter, 1973–74, pp.139–42; Reed, 1985, pp.37–39; Morris, 1986, pp.19–20; Smith, 2002b, p.131; Dowle, 2019, pp.12-13

About this Work

This monochrome watercolour was made by Girtin at a meeting of the Sketching Society held on the evening of 28 September 1799, when the subject set for illustration was a passage from William Cowper’s (1731–1800) The Task (1785) (Sketching Society, Minute Book).1 The six other drawings produced that evening, at the home of George Samuel (active 1785–1823) (see figure 1), have remained together as a group and, together with the society’s Minute Book, they give a unique insight into its short-lived activities. Samuel, as the host for the evening, chose the passage to be illustrated and, as the society’s rules stipulated, he got to keep the drawings that were produced; fortunately, he inscribed them with the artists’ names, since the lack of variety across the group, amounting almost to a house style, means that they are difficult to otherwise distinguish. In addition to the drawings by Girtin and Samuel, there are others by the amateur artists Thomas Richard Underwood (1772–1836), John Charles Denham (1777–1867) and Thomas George Worthington (unknown dates), and young professionals of Girtin’s generation, François Louis Thomas Francia (1772–1839) and Paul Sandby Munn (1773–1845) (see figure 2), all of which essentially repeat the same elements, and only Robert Ker Porter (1777–1842) introduced an imaginative element into his scene (see figure 3). Girtin himself did not depart greatly from the views of overshot mills he had already produced (such as TG1427), though the figure of the miller leaning out of the window does inject an element of humour into the scene. It seems that the constraints placed on time (the members worked from seven until ten) and on materials (monochrome wash on small paper) resulted in a certain dull uniformity. However, although the results are not startling, the more significant point is perhaps that a group of watercolourists got together to express their growing aspirations and emergent sense of identity, and that Girtin himself felt a sense of solidarity with a professionalising project that was to culminate after his death in the formation of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1804.

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


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 Details of the Society’s Laws, the names of attendees, and excerpts from the selected poems are transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1799 – Item 5).

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