Art and Water III: what brought water to the tap

A journey through the infrastructures and technologies that led to the water revolution and its reflection in the world of art.

Steam machine engraving. (1883) by Robert Henry ThurstonOriginal Source: Stationary steam engines: simple and compound (book)

Infrastructures and scientific and technological advances brought a revolution in the relationship between citizens and water in terms of well-being and health. New forms of catchment, pumping, distribution and treatment made it possible. Let's see it.

Model of the section of a well by Grau Alcàzar MaquetesMuseu de les Aigües

Well (extraction)

The development of new extraction techniques such as steam-powered pumping and, later, electrical energy, facilitated the capture of water from subsoil aquifers.

Well, SGAB Central. (January 1936) by UnknownOriginal Source: Archivo Sociedad General de Aguas de Barcelona (SGAB)

Through this photograph we can cover the history of Barcelona's water supply with human faces. Jackets and peaked caps characterized the uniforms of SGAB workers during large decades. 

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Generator (1907) by Lyon Society of Mechanics and ElectricityOriginal Source: Museu de les Aigües


Thanks to modern generators like this one, it was possible to convert the steam power produced in the boilers into electricity, necessary for the water pumping from the wells.

Self-Portrait with a Recent Invention (about 1854) by William ConstableThe J. Paul Getty Museum

William Constable (1783-1861) shows himself in this daguerreotype, presenting his latest invention to regulate the steam power. His peculiar profile position, covering part of the machine, reveals a pride vindication as its creator.

Painted brass model of a boiler, a transformer and a steam engineMuseu de les Aigües

Water elevation pump

The elevation pumps were essential to drive and distribute the water throughout the network, especially towards high points, where the force of gravity did not reach it by itself.

Water pump engraving (circa 1865) by UnknownOriginal Source: Wellcome Collection

This vintage engraving shows a pump that feeds a fountain in an industrial exhibition, typical of the last half of the 19th century. In this, the pump is claimed as an innovation. 

The appreciation of scientific and technological advances became a new form of leisure for the refined bourgeoisie.

Model of the Water Tower of Dos RiusMuseu de les Aigües

Elevated tank (water tower)

From elevated tanks such as the Water Tower of Dos Rius, on Tibidabo (Barcelona), the water descended by the force of gravity to the homes, thus guaranteeing the necessary pressure.

Tibidabo (2020) by Ernest DescalsMuseu de les Aigües

The Tower of Dos Rius appears in the pictorial collection "Lugares de Barcelona" (2020) by Ernest Descals, where the artist reflects the main attractions of Barcelona. 

The tower is not only a functional building for the city, but also part of catalan modernist heritage.

"Bonna" pipe.Museu de les Aigües


To get water to homes, it was necessary to build miles of network using resistant and durable materials. “Bonna” pipes like the one in the picture, made of steel covered with reinforced concrete, are a great part of Barcelona's water history.

Papallona sculpture (1987) by Paulí ColladoMuseu de les Aigües

Paulí Collado's sculpture stands on Plaza Josep Tarradellas in Cornellà. A forged steel butterfly, artist's specialty technique, rests on a huge water channelling pipe.

The Bonna tube was deposited commemoratively in the same place where the factory that bears its name used to be, which was demolished in 1979. This way, the great tube becomes an art piece and a memory place at the same time.

Binocular Magnifier (1950)Museu de les Aigües

Quality control

Quality controls were decisive to supress impurities that transmitted diseases through water for centuries. The constant analysis of samples allowed to weave a sanitized network, free of infectious agents.

Louis Pasteur (1885) by Albert EdelfeltOriginal Source: Musée d'Orsay

Albert Edelfelt, influenced by Impressionism, depicts Louis Pasteur in his laboratory in Ulm Street (París). The scene evokes the greatness of Pasteur and scientific knowledge.

Thanks to the advances in bioscience, such as those of Pasteur, at the end of the 19th century the miasma theory was refuted as the origin of infectious epidemics, turning the focus towards the microorganisms.

ToolboxMuseu de les Aigües


Complete tool boxes like this one allowed the staff to carry out the maintenance tasks of the machines and boilers correctly. The daily maintenance has been fundamental for the proper functioning of the network that brings water to our homes.

[Steamfitter, or Mechanic and Steam Pump] (negative 1921; print later) by Lewis W. HineThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The American photographer Lewis W. Hine presents in this image from 1921 a mix between sociological photography and art. It is a picture thought as a documentary piece about the industrial working class, but with an undeniable artistic intention.

Cornellà plant (2017) by Agbar Water MuseumMuseu de les Aigües

Do you want to explore the entire Art and water collection?

Art and water I: Before tap water
Art and water II: The arrival of tap water
Art and water III: What brought water to the tap

Museu de les Aigües

Credits: Story

This exhibition has been created with objects from Museu de les Aigües and with artworks from the Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya (Surveillance at the Barcelona General Water Society station during the “La Canadiense” strike), J. Paul Getty Museum (Self-Portrait with a Recent Invention and Steamfitter, or Mechanic and Steam Pump), Wellcome Collection (Water lift pump in an industrial exhibition), Ernest Descals. Artist Painter (Tibidabo) and Museé d'Orsay (Louis Pasteur).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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