Preview: 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 world’s first paddle steamer? Answer: the Scottish landscape painter, Alexander Nasmyth.

Nasmyth (1758-1840) was one of the stars of Scotland’s 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. It’s the brainchild of Valerie Hunter, Senior Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings, where many of Nasmyth’s drawings have been hidden away since their acquisition in 1928.

“He’s 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 there’s a portrait of him down in the National Portrait Gallery in London, where he’s 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, it’s 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 Burns’s 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 Edinburgh’s High Street, they walked seven miles to Roslin, where Nasmyth sketched Burns on the spot.

The two were introduced, it’s thought, by Patrick Miller of Dalswinton. When Nasmyth was just 20, Miller asked him for help in designing a paddleboat. According to the artist’s son, James, “Miller found that my father’s 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 Nasmyth’s thoughts. Hunter points to a pencil drawing of a dog. “You can see even here,” she says, “that he can’t get his mind away from these little engineering drawings that he liked to do. He’s drawing his wife’s dog, but he’s coming back later with a wee doodle of an idea for a paddle steamer. He’s 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 artist’s 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 principle’s 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.

“It’s 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.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 25.02.07