Joseph Mallord William Turner

Water Mill


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 181 × 254 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVII M

Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Robert Dunkarton, ‘Water Mill.’, published Turner, 1 February 1812
Along with Hind Head Hill, St Catherine’s Hill near Guildford and Hedging and Ditching (see Tate D08130, D08137, D08151; Turner Bequest CXVII C, J, W) this Liber Studiorum composition is derived from slight sketches made in the Spithead sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest C), generally thought to have been made on Turner’s round trip from London to Portsmouth in October and November 1807.1 Falling between those of Hindhead and Guildford – suggesting that the actual mill lay somewhere between those two locations – the drawing developed for the present design (D06582; C 52a) is so slight, with little to indicate the building’s function, that many elements of the mill and its surroundings must have been either recalled from memory or simply invented; as Gillian Forrester points out, Turner also felt free to change the season to summer, 2 in order to allude to the harvest with the woman carrying a sheaf.
The design is one of a number in the Liber depicting more or less prominent watermills (see in particular Bridge and Cows, Pembury Mill, Kent, and Mill near the Grand Chartreuse – drawings respectively Tate D08102, D08116, D08156; Turner Bequest CXVI A, O, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII B). Forrester has discussed the possible influence of The Water Mill, the first prominent painting by Turner’s emulator Augustus Wall Callcott, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1805 (private collection), 3 although David Blayney Brown has compared Callcott’s ‘monumental and elegiac’ treatment to Turner’s ‘EP’ Liber category (probably indicating ‘Elevated Pastoral’ – see general Liber introduction) rather than the everyday world of the ‘Pastoral’ subjects with which the present design was included.4
In Modern Painters, Ruskin regarded the scene as consistent with Turner’s dwelling on ‘decay and humiliation’ and ‘patient striving with hard conditions of life’ in the Liber, with ‘the water-mill, beyond the fallen steps, overgrown with the thistle: itself a ruin, mud-built at first, now propped on both sides; – the planks torn from its cattle-shed; ... the old mill-stone – useless for many a day – half-buried in slime, at the bottom of the wall; the listless children, listless dog, and the poor gleaner bringing her single sheaf to be ground.’5 Yet earlier in the same work, he had considered the latter (in engraved form) ‘exquisite’,6 and elsewhere declared that ‘it is pleasant to pass ... to this piece of rustic life, in which the repose of its natural tenor is sinking into the natural repose of decay.’7 He eventually returned to the pessimistic view he had expressed in Modern Painters, concluding that ‘the master insists upon the ancient curse of the earth [God’s curse on Adam] – “Thorns also and Thistles shall it bring forth to thee.”’8
See Alexander J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Second Edition, Revised, with a Supplement, by Hilda F. Finberg, revised ed., Oxford 1961, p.138.
Forrester 1996, p.97.
Ibid., p.97 and note 3.
David Blayney Brown, Augustus Wall Callcott, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.54; mezzotint after Callcott’s painting reproduced p.53.
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.432, 433.
Ibid., III 1903, p.236.
‘Catalogue of the Rudimentary Series’ in Instructions in Practice of Elementary Drawing, in ibid., XXI 1906, p.217.
Lectures on Landscape, in ibid., XXII 1906, p.68; quotation from Genesis 3:18; see also Brooke 1885, pp.121–2.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.161 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.77–85; 1906, pp.90–100; Finberg 1924, pp.145–64.
Hardie 1938, p.45 no.3.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986 – 88, London 1996, p.69.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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