Keswick Windmill?

A black and white version of part of the original painting in the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery’s collection

A windmill in Keswick was included in the list of Cumberland windmills compiled by J Hughes, with this description…“A water-colour in the Fitz Museum, Keswick, shows a view of Bassenthwaite Lake from Keswick painted by JAH in 1849. A fine timber smock-mill with domed cap is depicted in the foreground, and appears to be sited on elevated ground near St John’s Church. A single broken sail would seem to indicate that the mill had reached the end of its working life by this date. With an abundance of fast-flowing rivers in the immediate area it would be tempting to believe the mill was romantic licence on the part of the artist. However, an earlier artist, W. Westall, showed the same mill on an engraving of “The Vale of Keswick” in 1836. This eight-sided type of mill, though common enough in other counties, has not been found elsewhere in Cumberland.”

The article below was written by Stuart Cresswell in the CIHS Bulletin for April 2016, in response to a discussion around the existence of the mill.

Click here for an introduction to windmills in Cumbria.

I have examined four images of Keswick dated in the first half of the 18th century, and now I am confident that the Keswick windmill was a figment of artistic imagination

JAH View of Keswick 1849. Actually the painting is inscribed “Bassenthwaite from Keswick JAH 1849”. JAH is probably John Adam Plimmer Houston (1812-1884). I have studied the original in Keswick Museum and, if we assume that it is a ‘true’ representation, then it must have been painted from roughly where St. John’s Church now stands.

The original is wider than that shown above, and importantly the path into the town in the gully to the right runs to the right of the windmill with a bank rising to its right. In the centre can be seen Crosthwaite Church silhouetted against Bassenthwaite Lake (though it looks a bit oversize), and the Moot Hall just to the left of the mill. Perspective suggests that the mill is south (left) of the line through Crosthwaite Church and the Moot Hall which tallies with the suggested viewpoint. Greta Hall is absent.

St John’s Church’s foundation stone was laid in 1836 and the dedication service was in 1838. Its school was built in 1840 and Battersby Hall in 1849. At least the school should be in an ‘exact’ picture of 1849. The mill is probably where the school should be. Battersby Hall, if built before the painting, would be on the rise to the right. In practice it is in Church Street which falls away to the flattish area near Penrith Road.

The path/road  to the right of the mill ought to be the turnpike/toll-road to Ambleside which passed the church at this point. However it does not look sufficiently substantial, and it appears to be going downhill too soon. The ‘path’ to the left could be the path that currently goes past the graveyard to the roundabout on Borrowdale Road.

The houses to the left of the mill are (possibly) those in the High Street area. There are two rows with, at the right end of the nearest, a square block of masonry. At first sight this appears to be the base of the mill but it cannot be so – the mill is to the right of the second row. That seems strange because the sails would have hit the ridge of that row whenever the wind was from the south-west – the prevailing wind! I believe that the ‘broken sail’ is the beam used to rotate the cap and sails to face the wind. However, that beam disappears behind a chimney and could not give 360 degree rotation.

While on impossibilities, regardless of whether the school had been built, I doubt that it would have been possible to see the upper windows of the Moot Hall which are shown clearly. If the school had been built it would not have been possible to see any of this view from the ground level at the church – the school blocks it all!

John Westall’s etching is said to have been down in 1836. (Keswick Museum has an uncoloured print which I have examined). However it shows a completed St. John’s Church (and a possible new rectory). There are two possible towers to the right of the church. One is dark in colour and the other light. Neither has a domed top. The dark tower corresponds roughly to the windmill position in JAH’s painting, though it appears further into town. Greta Hall is just ‘below’ Bassenthwaite Lake.

I have doubts about three of the buildings in this etching – the church, the building to the left of the possible windmill stump, and the building (and possibly its neighbour) to the right of the white gable immediately to the right of the stump. They all have a different quality of line and texture to the rest of the picture, and look (to me) as if they have been added after the original etching – which is sensible seeing the church was not completed until two years after the etching!

There is a W(illiam) Westall etching done in 1819/29 from roughly the same viewpoint – the sharp and steep double bend in the Ambleside Road just below Castlerigg Manor, or possibly the top of Manor Brow. It has the Moot Hall tower but not St John’s Church AND there is no evidence of a windmill type building. (The view does not extend as far as Greta Hall).

There is a second W(illiam) Westall view of Skiddaw of similar date from (maybe) Castlehead which has the town in view. It also has neither St John’s nor windmill, but it does have the Moot Hall and possible Greta Hall (though it is dark not white as in the other views).

It is possible that JAH made a sketch of the view from the rise on which St John’s Church was built before it was built, and only made the painting later. Even so I think has used a fair amount of artist’s licence in the foreground. In particular, though it is possible, the windmill appears to be built on a substantial mound, which is odd because there is not one there, and it would have been better built where the church is now. Also the rough ground between the path and road is unlikely.

He may even have re-visited the site in 1849 but preferred the earlier view, so had to guess the layout of houses in the High Street area. It might have been then that he realised the pictorially the picture needed closure, and so used his imagination to put in the windmill stump. A windmill is the only object – apart from a tall tree which would be inappropriate in this ‘urban’ scene – that can stand up sufficiently to provide closure and still appear credible.

I suspect that the copies of the John Westall 1836 etching in Keswick Museum are taken from a plate that was doctored to include a completed St John’s Church and the windmill stump; and that this was done to accord with JAH’s painting.

On balance I think that the windmill is an artist’s whim to make the proportions of the painting better balanced. I could be wrong! A search in the Derwentwater Manorial Archives could find references to a windmill.

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