With the climate crisis accelerating, the importance of developing renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels is increasingly apparent. Of the various options currently available one of the most widespread and visible is wind power. Wind turbines and wind farms are being built in countries across the world, and offshore, in ever greater numbers. The growing enthusiasm for wind power would come as no surprise to previous generations, who harnessed the wind’s energy for centuries up to and well into the Industrial Revolution.

 

Watercolour of a post mill with small buildings surrounding and workers digging in the foreground.

The post mill is a simple verticle windmill. The whole body of the mill and its machinery are mounted to a single post, which can be turned in order to catch the wind as it changes direction. Gordon's Mill in Paddington, Sydney, was built around 1829 and was in use until the 1870s. Old mill, Gordon St, Paddington, Sydney, 1862, George Roberts. Courtesy of State Library of New South Wales. Out of copyright.

The windmill has its origins in parts of eighth- or ninth-century Persia (modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), where an early form of the technology was developed using horizontal wind-catching sails fitted on a vertical axis. These ‘panemone’ windmills were used in Central Asia, China, India, and some parts of southern Europe. The distinctive northern European version of the windmill, with vertical sails on a horizontal axis, was a later invention, coming into use around the 12th and 13th centuries in the lowlands of eastern England, Flanders and northern France.

 

A watercolour painting of a tower windmill next to a town, with fields in the foreground.

Tower mills consist of a brick or stone tower with a wooden cap that can be turned so that the attached sails catch the wind. In this image of the Cley Windmill, which still stands in Norfolk, you can clearly see the small 'fantail' mounted at right angles to the main sails, which was used to automatically turn the cap. Windmill at Cley, early 20th century, Martin Hardie. Image © By permission of the Warden and Scholars of Winchester College. All Rights Reserved.

The windmill underwent various changes over the years, evolving from a simple ‘post windmill’ structure, in which the sails and machinery are mounted to a single wooden post, to solid masonry towers and later the lighter ‘smock windmill’ which have a wooden framework covered with a tough surface such as thatch or board. A windmill's sails turn as they catch the wind, converting its energy into rotational energy which can then be used to power mills, pump water, or even generate electricity (the first electricity-generating windmill was built as far back as 1887 by Professor James Blyth in Scotland).

 

Watercolour painting of a windmill with an octagonal base, four sails and a wooden platform around its main structure.

The historic smock mill of Sanssouci was destroyed in the Second World War but a replica has since been constructed in Potsdam. The Windmill at Sanssouci, 19th century, Karl Lindemann-Frommel. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018. All Rights Reserved

Windmills were a vital technology for all manner of profitable industries, particularly in areas that didn’t have a fast-flowing supply of water to power watermills. They could be adapted to grind flour, chalk, paint, cocoa, to make paper, oil, or to cut timber, among other things. In the Netherlands, lightweight smock windmills were used to drain the wetlands for use in agriculture and development. Large parts of the region owed their existence to wind power: little wonder then that the windmill became an icon of Dutch art.

 

A historical watercolour painting of a fisherman hauling a fishing net out of marshy land, with a windmill visible to the left and a church in the distance at the right. Swans, ducks, and people in boats can be seen in the background.

Windmills played a huge role in Netherlandish life, allowing people to reclaim land and develop multiple industries from agriculture to shipbuilding. A fisherman hauling in his net, 1595-1634, Hendrick Avercamp. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum. Public domain.

By 1850, some 200,000 windmills were in use across Europe, but soon their numbers began to dwindle. The invention of steam power and the internal combustion engine paved the way for the 20th century’s whole-hearted and ultimately damaging embrace of fossil fuels. But as long as the wind still blows the potential of the technology endures – something which is more important to remember now than ever.

We’ve found hundreds of windmill watercolours on our database. They had a picturesque appeal for many painters, while others drew them to record their community’s way of life. Here are a few of our favourites. Click here to see all the windmills on The Watercolour World.