This spectacular landscape comes from one of the finest painters of the English Lake District, and an intriguing and important figure in the history of 19th Century painting who formed a bridge between the achievements of Romanticism and the innovations of the Pre-Raphaelite School. Although born in Shoreditch, Blacklock’s family returned to live at Cumwhitton in Cumbria in 1821, where the beauty of his surroundings profoundly affected the young artist’s vision. Although he was at first apprenticed to a lithographer, Blacklock soon turned to landscape painting. However it was his output between 1850 to 1855 (he died in an asylum in 1858, aged 42, as a result of 'monomania of ambition and general paralysis’) that is now celebrated for its intensity, in much the same way that Richard Dadd’s Bedlam pictures intrigue with their almost hallucinogenic, obsessive detail. Indeed, when this picture was shown at Tate Britain between 1992 and 1994 it hung alongside Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, its exact contemporary.
A Miller’s Homestead dates from 1854, six years after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was commissioned by Charles Roberson, the artist’s colour-man, who did so much to change the appearance of mid-19th Century painting through his introduction of prepared canvases, innovative pigments, and tubes of colour that could be deployed outside the studio. This landscape exemplifies the effect of these, and sits within the zeitgeist of Pre-Raphaelitism with its intense scrutiny of the natural world. At the same time Blacklock appears to anticipate Impressionism, responding keenly to the constantly shifting quality of light falling on the distant hills, the sunshine and shadow giving volume to the forms they describe. The picture is quintessentially impressionist in its immediacy, and its being 'of the moment’.
Blacklock’s Pre-Raphaelite links are tantalising. Through his friendship with William Bell Scott he met Rossetti, and was commissioned to paint three canvases for the Gateshead Pre-Raphaelite collector, James Leathart. Our picture was mentioned in correspondence with Leathart on 2 June 1854: 'I have however got two pictures just finished one the same lake as I am going to do for Mr Armstrong but a different view – nearer the Langdale Pikes – the other a Millers homestead and the mill – looking over a moor – distant hills etc – they are for Mr Roberson the artist colourman’.
His earlier landscapes had already been admired by Turner and Ruskin. Another admirer was David Roberts – to whom this painting may have belonged. In 'An Artist’s Career’, a lengthy article published by the Glasgow Evening News in 1900 that did much to revive Blacklock’s reputation, the artist Henry Wilkinson recalled writing to him that he called upon Roberts and 'was ushered into his dining room, full of the best modern masters. What picture think you, occupied the post of honour? Why yours, flanked on one side by a Stanfield, and on the other by one of the finest Wilson’s I ever saw … 'Every one of these was given me by the artist, and Blacklock’s is the only picture I ever purchased in my life!!!’ There’s for you. He pointed out the rocks, river and trees and said they are all exquisitely painted, and true to nature. The mill, he said was rather thin… I said, in my opinion, No man Living could paint better and he agreed with me’.
Ruskin’s injunction to artists 'to go to nature, …rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing’ has been wholeheartedly absorbed by Blacklock. Gill Bank Farm and mill stands besides Whillan Beck, a tributary of the River Esk. The Scarfell range, overlooking Burnmoor stands in the distance. This picture is amongst the greatest of Blacklock’s works (some consider it his masterpiece), many of which can be found in Tullie House, Carlisle, the Abbott Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, and the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Others can be seen in The British Museum, the Yale Center for British Art, Dove Cottage (the Wordsworth Trust), and Leeds City Art Gallery.