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John Munnings’ Watermill Sketchbooks

Author: Laura Felton-Hustwitt

For the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to look through and catalogue two of John Munnings’ watermill sketchbooks. Containing 143 sketches of water mills from all over the country, it was a long but worthwhile process scanning and recording each and every page. My job was to add the sketches to the Mills Archive Images and Documents Catalogue in order for the public to enjoy them. The sketchbooks can now be viewed under the John Munnings Collection, each mill documented separately, some accompanied by a small description or anecdote giving an insight into Munnings’ life as the son of a miller.

Poster Image

John Munnings, nephew of the famous painter Sir Alfred Munnings, was evidently a traveller, sketching mills with amazing accuracy from Suffolk to Cornwall and almost every county in between. The artist numbered each double page of his sketchbooks from 1 to 143, with no noticeable order save from a few pages dedicated to particular areas. The images below show a comparison between Munnings’ sketch of Denford Mill in Hungerford and a photograph of the same mill from a similar angle taken years earlier.

Born in 1916, Munnings completed his sketchbook at the end of his life from the years 1980 to 1987. We can tell from his sketches that the artist grew up surrounded by mills and had a great interest in them from a young age. It is the stories and descriptions which accompany the sketches which I found the most engaging as they can really give us an understanding of who Munnings was. He often talks of making regular trips to the Norwich Corn Exchange with his father when he was young, and describes encounters with ‘famous’ millers of the area who knew him and his family well. A particular story tells of how Syleham Drabbet Mill in Suffolk burned down while Munnings was at school. On hearing of the fire, a young Munnings wanted to find out which mill in the area had been damaged and so went to the fire station to enquire. However, his concern for the mill meant that he was late for afternoon school with, as he knowingly put it, ‘the usual results’. The image at the top of this blog is Munnings’ sketch of Syleham Drabbet Mill, accompanied by his anecdote.

It is stories such as these that bring the sketchbook to life and transform it from an ordinary series of sketches into a kind of journal of Munnings’ life and views. The artist was not afraid to display his strong personal ideas about changes in mill ownership and use, making for some amusing reading in parts. Whilst Hovis was ‘not fit to own’ mills in Newbury, Ellingham Mill in Norfolk was closed down out of the ‘bloody ignorance that the wiz kid knows best!’ Though entertaining to read, throughout his sketchbook Munnings displays disappointment at the closing down of so many mills ultimately portraying the sentiment of a man who cared deeply for the mill industry and its families.

I have really enjoyed getting to know Munnings and his watermills and hope to look at some similar people in the future!