Alexander Nasmyth: An Enlightened Gentleman
March 3 - April 29; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Question: who invented compression riveting? The bow and string bridge?
And helped develop the worlds first paddle steamer? Answer:
the Scottish landscape painter, Alexander Nasmyth.
Nasmyth (1758-1840) was one of the stars of Scotlands Golden
Age of painting, which flowered during the Enlightenment. According
to celebrated Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie, he was the
founder of the Landscape Painting School of Scotland. Nasmyth's
grand canvases assured his place in history, while his other achievements
slipped into obscurity.
Now a new display at the National Gallery of Scotland aims to put
that right. Its the brainchild of Valerie Hunter, Senior Curator
in the Department of Prints and Drawings, where many of Nasmyths
drawings have been hidden away since their acquisition in 1928.
Hes like a Scottish Leonardo, explains Hunter. We
know him from great paintings we have in the collection, like The
Building Of The Royal Institution, and fantastic landscapes, but theres
a portrait of him down in the National Portrait Gallery in London,
where hes standing amidst the men of science, such as Humphry
Davy, James Watt, Thomas Telford, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And
there he is, a man of science!
If you are familiar with Nasmyth, its probably for his grand,
atmospheric Scottish landscapes, the towering trees and rocks arranged
in perfect, classical harmony, and somewhere in the distance, a castle
nestling in the evening light. You may also know his lively Edinburgh
vistas, crammed with topographical detail and set against vast, cloudy
skies. You will certainly have seen the iconic portrait of his great
friend, Robert Burns.
Nasmyth shared Burnss radical political views, and when he first
set up as a portrait painter, those allegiances lost him aristocratic
patrons. So he turned to the landscape, another bond between the two
men. They spent many days and nights together, walking, drinking and
talking, and after one night in the taverns of Edinburghs High
Street, they walked seven miles to Roslin, where Nasmyth sketched
Burns on the spot.
The two were introduced, its thought, by Patrick Miller of Dalswinton.
When Nasmyth was just 20, Miller asked him for help in designing a
paddleboat. According to the artists son, James, Miller
found that my fathers taste for mechanical contrivances, and
also his ready skill as a draughtsman, were likely to be of much use
to him, and he constantly visited the studio. Over the next
few years, they would develop one of the first paddle-steamers in
the world, and in 1788 it would make its first trip on Dalswinton
Lake, with both Nasmyth and Robert Burns aboard.
For the rest of his life, paddle-steamers were never far from Nasmyths
thoughts. Hunter points to a pencil drawing of a dog. You can
see even here, she says, that he cant get his mind
away from these little engineering drawings that he liked to do. Hes
drawing his wifes dog, but hes coming back later with
a wee doodle of an idea for a paddle steamer. Hes always active
with his ideas for inventions.
Some inventions were more successful than others. He discovered compression
riveting while trying to spare his neighbours the noise of his hammering
on a Sunday, and his bow and string bridge was adopted by famous bridge-builder,
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Happy to allow others to benefit from his
ideas, Nasmyth never patented them, and is rarely given the credit.
Some other of the artists inventions were not quite so successful.
His designs for an elaborate tunnel underneath the River Forth, complete
with drainage and ventilation, were never carried out due to their
high cost. But his Heath Robinson ideas for how the builders would
work under and over water are priceless. One charming little sketch
shows divers using barrels of air, and floating breathing apparatus,
to carry out the tunnel works, while another investigates means of
walking on water including adjustable stilts and inflatable trousers.
Some of his ideas are a little bit on the daft side, admits
Hunter, but beautifully drawn
I suppose that Leonardo
was the same with some of his flying machines. the principles
there, but the pants that fill up with water look a bit silly!
A gregarious host, and much-loved by his masters, his pupils and his
peers, Nasmyth was also a family man. Father to 11 children, he taught
them the skills with which they could become self-reliant. Several
of his daughters helped him run his art classes, and all went on to
enjoy successful careers of their own.
Its very rare, says Hunter, when you do something
about an artist
and you get such glowing appraisals of him by
everybody he comes in contact with. After a long and happy life,
Nasmyth died at the age of 82, and at his request he was buried in
the lee of Edinburgh Castle, a view which he had always loved.
Black, Sunday Herald 25.02.07