Brentford Mill by Joseph Nicholls, mid 18th century. Oil on canvas (61 x 101 cm)
Tony Lewis of the West London Archaeological Field Group spotted this picture at the Christie’s British Paintings Sale in November 1996. He alerted Sarah Levitt of Gunnersbury Park Museum and Andrea Cameron of Hounslow Leisure Services Department who decided to buy it for the Borough’s collection. It will be kept at Gunnersbury Park Museum.
The picture formed part of the estate of the late Duke of Atholl. An enquiry to the Atholl archive revealed that it came into the family through marriage with the Cowdray family of Midhurst, Sussex. Brentford has always been a busy, bustling place, and this very rural view has led some people to doubt the picture’s local identity. However, given a bit of artistic licence, the evidence suggests that it does depict Brentford. First, the large brick drum on which the mill sits is extremely unusual and is shown in later (and well documented) pictures still supporting a mill. Second, the relative positions of church, mill and open ground on maps of the parish of Ealing (1777) and the first OS map (1865) tally with the picture (the mill was just east of what is now Watermans Arts Centre).
The mill shown in this picture is a peg mill. This appears to have been replaced with a more powerful smock mill by 1780. The mill was probably the power source for a distillery which is featured in the 1777 map. The angle of the picture suggests that Joseph Nicholls was sitting on the tip of Lot’s Ait, the trees along the riverside are probably obscuring other buildings of Brentford. Not very much is known about Joseph Nicholls, except that he painted several scenes along the Thames in the middle of the 18th century. This picture was probably one of his later works since the first St George’s church was not built until the 1760s.
NOTE: This painting remains in the collection of Gunnersbury Park Museum and has been included in the new displays which opened in 2018. However, a more recent study of the image suggests that despite the views of thoe who purchased it this image does not represent the Thames at Brentford. “Artistic licence” does not explain the straight course of the much narrower river or the absence of the eyots or islands. We have concluded that it is likely to depict a mill in another location.