Awful Windmills: Power and Landscape

Peter Nelson

In June 2015, during an interview with 2GB radio host Alan Jones, Prime Minister Tony Abbott described wind farms as ‘visually awful’, speculated on their potential as a health hazard in the landscape, and launched a broad criticism of the Renewable Energy Target.[i] Abbot’s health claim came four months after the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council released its information paper, which concluded that on the basis of available data, there was ‘no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans’.[ii] Whilst Abbott’s rejection of evidence from an Australian government agency was merely a continuation of the political tradition now dramatically rebranded as ‘fake news’, it was the ‘visually awful’ statement that really stuck in my mind.  The relationship between power and aesthetic judgement is deeply woven in the fabric of landscape images. This essay is not about whether or not a windmill is visually attractive; it is about who is making this ‘visually awful’ judgement and how it relates to a historical tradition of landscape aesthetics and power. At a time when the Australian political landscape is fracking and reconfiguring itself at a rapid rate, the reference to landscape aesthetics in the same breath as a critique of the Renewable Energy Target invites a discussion on the historical context of landscape aesthetics in Australia. Rather than dismiss Abbott’s ‘visually awful’ comment as a flippant reminder of his general contempt for renewable energy, I relate Australian pastoral images back to 17th century Dutch paintings of windmills, and show how political power and landscape aesthetics work in tandem, how relationships split and splinter over time, and how certain landscape aesthetics can overpower, out compete, and silence concurrent or contradictory cultural and historical narratives. By focusing on the rise of landscape as a popular subject in European painting, I show how the politics of these images trace the colonial gaze into early Australian art history. I show how the opinion of what ‘looks good’ in a landscape can be the direct outcome of broader changes in political power, and how in the case of Australian pastoral images, the symbolic meaning of a landscape image can be changed by the historical revisionism of indigenous agricultural practice.


Jacob Van Ruisdael, Landscape with Windmills Near Haarlem, oil on panel, c.1650-2, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.


When art historians discuss the origins of landscape painting as a genre in its own right (rather than as a background for religious or mythological scenes) they usually start with Dutch and Flemish paintings of the 17th century, such as those by Jacob van Ruisdael and Aelbert Cuyp.[iii] During this period, the new Dutch Republic was adjusting to its recent independence from Spain, its conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism and its massive transition to an open market economy, which funded the largest land reclamation project in the world. Windmills were an iconic national symbol of this process; they helped drain the swamps and they provided power for emerging export industries.  Whilst the paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael and Aelbert Cuyp are often taken as faithful and naturalistic representations of pastoral idyll, they are, in fact, highly selective representations that sought to naturalise the dramatic shifts in Dutch society and collectively contribute to a newfound sense of Dutch national identity.[iv]  

If we fast-forward one hundred years to 18th century England, in the years just prior to Britain’s colonisation of Australia, the English agrarian revolution heavily influenced ideas of what ‘looked good’ in a landscape. The agrarian revolution in England saw the introduction of modern farming techniques to English agriculture, and the mass privatisation of common lands and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of rural aristocrats. The massive amounts of money gleaned from these changes allowed landowners to construct enormous estate gardens across the English countryside, which included the construction of artificial lakes, hills, architectural ruins and manor houses. The visual principles that emerged from this enormous project of landscape architecture were known as the ‘Picturesque’ (meaning ‘in the manner of a picture’).[v] Key theorists of this movement such as William Gilpin and Sir Uvedale Price wrote essays on how a landscape should be improved according to their Picturesque principles, and how a tourist in the landscape should travel through and enjoy these new landscapes, what walking routes they should take, and how they should select the correct vantage point from which to draw the ideal Picturesque landscape image[vi] One of the strongest influences on Gilpin and Price were the supposedly naturalistic Dutch paintings of windmills previously mentioned. At this time, the rustic naturalism of these landscapes contrasted the heavily geometric character of French gardens, and was seen as preferable in the eyes of Gilpin and Price.  Gilpin and Price’s essays advised the landowner how to frame an experience of the landscape garden much like an artist frames an image. A key aspect in all of this was visibility. Picturesque design obscured fences and property boundaries, avoided the visible signs of labour or industry, and used a naturalistic aesthetic to downplay the fact that these gardens were in fact man-made. From a series of vantage points, either through windows of the manor house, or looking down a garden path, the Picturesque garden presented itself to the visitor as a series of discrete, naturalistic images. The privatisation of land and the subsequent lavishness of these estate gardens was later described by John Ruskin as “the heartlessness of the Picturesque”, because these gardens and the paintings of them relied on the impoverishment of the newly landless labourers, who often lived in derelict cottages that were deliberately designed as sentimental features for the landscape.[vii] In effect, the Picturesque built landscapes that sought to hide the fact that they had been built, and through essays, paintings and travel guides, the rural aristocracy naturalised their monopoly of the English countryside by encouraging middle class tourism of this newly renovated English countryside.[viii] Much like the Dutch paintings of windmills, these newly constructed Picturesque landscapes, and the paintings that accompanied them served to visually encapsulate a national sense of ‘British-ness’ for this growing imperial power.

View north over the eastern branch of the Octagon Lake, Stowe Gardens, designed and created in three main phases by Charles Bridgeman (1711 – 1735), William Kent (1741 – 1751) and Capability Brown (1741 – 1751), Buckinghamshire, England. Photograph by Christine Matthews. 


The timing of all of this is crucial for Australia. On his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean from 1772 – 1775, Captain Cook was accompanied by English artist William Hodges, who produced a series of landscape paintings. Hodges’s paintings of places like Tahiti offered a fertile landscape of desire for the British viewer – both an eroticised New World as well as an investment opportunity for plantation owners. These paintings, much like the voyages themselves, combined a hunger for discovery with a survey for potential wealth extraction. [ix] Where the Picturesque naturalised changes of ownership that had occurred, Hodges’s exploration landscapes projected the desires of the British onto a whole new set of geographical territories.


William Hodges, Tahiti RevisitedA view taken in the Bay of Otaheite Peha, oil on canvas, 1775-6, National Maritime Museum, London.

If we look at the ideas of what looks good in a landscape that were circulating around the time of the British colonisation of Australia, we find a combination of the naturalisation of property inequality, the creation of the nationalistic image of British-ness, the eroticised excitement of the New World, and the suggestion of investment opportunities in fertile, unexploited lands. To compound this, the experiences of both the free settler and the emancipated convict in Australia were characterised, in part, by the ability to become a landowner, which in England had already become essentially impossible.[x]

Fast-forwarding again, this time to the Heidelberg school and to Australian impressionist painting, the colonial economic optimism of William Hodges is realised in Arthur Streeton’s The Land of the Golden Fleece (1926). In this case, Streeton selected a view of rural Victoria that conforms to the compositional tropes of European traditions. A foreground populated by healthy livestock, and a pleasant clumping of trees leads to a body of water in the middle ground, which is finally framed by a mountainous background. Streeton’s title introduces the Greek myth of kingship and agricultural salvation onto the post-World War I landscape of rural Victoria, where the newly successful wool industry had become the first major export industry since the Gold Rush.[xi] The Heidelberg school’s pastoral vision of the Australian landscape had a similar effect to the Picturesque and the Dutch masters, whereby massive changes in land ownership, in this case colonial dispossession and an expanding agricultural frontier, were naturalised and converted into a nationalistic image of agrarian achievement. When Abbott spoke about what looks good in an Australian landscape, I think it is this sort of rustic rural imagery that still has a powerful hold on the aesthetics of Australian political power.

larger_Arthur_Streeton_Land_of_the_Golden_Fleece,_1926 (1)

Arthur Streeton, The Land of the Golden Fleece, oil on canvas, 1925, National Gallery of Australia.

Looking back to the historical context of these images, and the traditions on which they draw, the symbolism of these historical Australian pastoral images breaks down in a number of interesting ways. The recent publications by landscape historians Bruce Pascoe[xii] and Bill Gammage[xiii] have done much to tell the story of pre-1788 indigenous agriculture, and of the massive extent to which the Australian landscape was transformed and managed by indigenous agricultural practices. Both Pascoe and Gammage describe how the open grasslands that confronted European colonists were in fact the direct results of careful regimes of fire farming and other agricultural practices carried out by indigenous Australians. Due to the legal fiction of Terra Nullius, colonists had to define these pastures as not being the results of human labour, despite what their eyes told them.* With the use of this one example of a revisionist history, Streeton’s iconic image of Australian pastoralism is transformed into a representation of the successes of indigenous agriculture that underpinned those of colonial agriculture.

But I want to get back to the basic point of a Prime Minister talking about what looks good in a landscape, and why this history of power, ownership and visibility is relevant to what might otherwise be dismissed as a flippant comment. After the Australian economy rode on the sheep’s back, drought, the centralisation of agribusiness, the conflicts between mining and farming and the continued struggle for indigenous land rights have resulted in complex narratives of power that are not encompassed by any single thread of artistic representation. The systems of aesthetics that often are called upon in relation to national image or what one thinks a place should look like are always defined by deeply embedded power structures. The idea that a simple thing like a windmill in a landscape can change so dramatically from a nationalistic symbol of wealth and achievement, to an object of visual disgust illustrates how the shifts in political power from agricultural enterprise to mineral extraction can be adsorbed into an historical tradition of landscape aesthetics and power. What is really at issue here is the Picturesque notion of visibility. Where the open cut mine is hidden from the touristic gaze, the windmill is visible from national highways and farmhouse windows. Therefore, the windmill is more visually awful than the open cut coal mine because it both threatens the hegemony of the mining industry, and has the gall to break the long established contract of industrial invisibility in landscape aesthetics.

To conclude, what we now have is a splintering of Australian landscape aesthetics, where a conversation between two conservative power brokers about what looks good in a landscape can raise the history of landscape and power, and reveal narratives that were sidelined or silenced in the history of these images. This splintering can bring us closer to the true mix of historical and cultural narratives that have comprised Australian landscape aesthetics post 1788. If we understand the relationship of landscape imagery to political power, we can understand why the pastoral vision would seek to naturalise the dispossession of indigenous nations, to obscure the visual impact of open cut mines, or the myriad other conflicts that define power in the Australian landscape. In the present day, the Picturesque Australian landscape is most at home when seen through the window of an air-conditioned office, where the visually awful externalities of political power are obscured from view.

Windmills in South Australia, GIF made by the author from footage taken from ABC News  9/06/2014

[i] Interview with Prime Minister Tony Abbott by Alan Jones, 2GB Radio, 11 June 2015

[ii] Australian Government, National Health and Medical Research Council, ‘NHMRC Statement and Information Paper: Evidence on Wind Farms and Human Health”, February 11, 2015 

[iii] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, London, 1995, p.10

[iv] Ann Jensen Adams, Competing Communities in the ‘Great Bog of Europe’: Identity and Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape Painting’ in Landscape and Power, The University of Chicago Press, 2002, p.38 Landscape and Power, p.38

[v] John Macarthur, The Picturesque: Architecture, Disgust and Other Irregularities, Routledge, New York, 2007, p.4

[vi] John Whale, ‘Romantics, Explorers and Picturesque Travellers’ in The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, landscape and aesthetics since 1770, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.178

[vii][vii] Macarthur, p.120

[viii] Ann Bermingham, ‘The Picturesque and Ready-To-Wear Femininity’ in The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, landscape and aesthetics since 1770, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.86

[ix] Mark Roskill, The Languages of Landscape, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, p.104

[x] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Vintage, London, 1986, p.141

[xi] The National Gallery of Australia Catalogue description:

[xii] Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala Books, Broome, 2014

[xiii] Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011.



* Both Pascoe and Gammage heavily reference primary sources from early colonial settlement where both soldiers, government officers and free settlers described the landscapes of New South Wales and Victoria as resembling an English gentleman’s garden

Peter Nelson is an artist from Sydney who works between drawing, sculpture, and digital media. His enduring interest is how various traditions of landscape painting...


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