The Windmills of the Whitworth

Find out about the wonder of windmills in Afzal’s love letter to these mighty structures.

The Cambridge Dictionary describes a windmill as a building or structure with large blades on the outside that, when turned by the force of the wind, provide the power for getting water out of the ground or crushing grain. This definition sadly does not truly acknowledge the significance of the mighty and noble windmill in its true glory.

The Whitworth’s collection is broad and varied. Something that struck me was the beautiful variations of windmills we have in our collections. The use of wind is an age-old concept that has benefitted humanity for thousands of years, with its gradual evolution benefitting humans in countless ways. The varieties of architectural forms the windmill takes in different parts of the world is an anthropological study in and of itself, with windmills still existing in the UK, into mainland Europe and beyond. The windmill is the future of wind power and sustainability as its perennial design transcends time with its resurrection and renaissance in the form of the modern wind turbine. 

The windmill encompasses the simplicity by which humankind has been able to harness the power of nature to create motion, which in turn has solved our problems. From the grinding of grains to the pumping of water, the very essence of the human experience has been nourished through the noble windmill. The windmill is one of reasons we have the technological advancement we are collectively indebted to, which provides us with easier lives as the technology has evolved over time. If it were not for ancient innovations, it is possible that we would not have had the immense amount of technological advancements in the last century that we benefit from today.

One of the earliest recorded working windmill designs found was invented sometime around 700–900 CE in Persia. This design was the Panemone, with vertical lightweight wooden sails attached by horizontal struts to a central vertical shaft. It was first built to pump water, and subsequently modified to grind grain as well. The use of simple tools to create complex designs is a testament to human ingenuity and innovation with the desire to make our collective lives easier, harnessing the natural elements that we know so well. 

Henry Bright (1814-1873), Old Sussex Windmill (recto); Ols Sussex Windmill (verso), drawing in pencil and chalk. Accession number: D.1912.2 Source: the Whitworth

In the Whitworth’s collection we are not ignorant of the mighty windmill as we acknowledge this piece of human innovation for what it is. With artists such as Walter Crane and Henry Bright who have rightly thought the windmill worthy of being immortalised in art. 

Walter Crane (1845-1915), Illustration from ‘Black Books’ Series: Windmill, pencil and watercolour. Accession number: WCA. Source: the Whitworth

The windmill is a feat of engineering that has lived on into the modern age, with its simple design and concept being used and modernised to create the colossal wind turbines that generate electricity. The reinvention of the humble windmill has revolutionised the way in which energy is generated in a more eco-friendly way so that we can take better care of the environment.

John Varley (1778-1842), The Windmill, Acton, London, drawn 18/05/1833. Pencil and watercolour. Accession number: D.1924.44. Source: the Whitworth

I believe we should collectively acknowledge and appreciate the significance of the windmill and give it due appreciation through learning about it and seeing it for the colossal invention it is. 

Walter Crane (1845-1915), Proof of illustration from ‘The Merrie Heart’: ‘Little Bo-Peep’, ink on paper. Accession number: WCA Source: the Whitworth.

3 thoughts on “The Windmills of the Whitworth

  1. What a lovely piece on beautiful windmills. An English Don, at Cambridge, Mansfield Forbes arranged for Epsteins Genesis to be put on show at Finella House in 1931. Her first visit after the Manchester City gallery exhibition. Forbes was a windmill enthusiast and used entrance fees from the 2 week exhibition to purchase Bourn Mill for £45. England’s oldest existing ( just!) windmill. Good old Genesis.

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