Nasmyth, Alexander (DNB00)

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NASMYTH, ALEXANDER (1758–1840), portrait and landscape painter, second son of Michael Nasmyth, a builder, and his wife, Mary Anderson, was born in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, on 9 Sept. 1758. He was educated in the high school, receiving instruction from his father in mensuration and mathematics; and he studied art in the Trustees' Academy under Alexander Runciman, having been apprenticed to Crichton, a coachbuilder, by whom he was employed in painting arms and decorations upon the panels of carriages. His work of this kind attracted the notice of Allan Ramsay the portrait-painter, while he was on a visit to Edinburgh, and he induced Crichton to transfer to himself the indentures of his apprentice. Removing to London, the youth was now employed upon the subordinate portions of Ramsay's portraits, and he diligently profited by the study of a fine collection of drawings by the old masters which the artist possessed.

In 1778 Nasmyth returned to Edinburgh and established himself as a portrait-painter. His works were usually cabinet-sized full-lengths, frequently family groups, and introducing landscape backgrounds and views of the mansions of the sitters. One of his best subjects of this kind is his group of Professor Dugald Stewart with his first wife and their child; and other examples are in the possession of the Earls of Minto and Rosebery. He had already begun to manifest that interest in science which distinguished him through life. His pencil was of much service to Patrick Miller [q. v.] of Dalswinton in connection with his mechanical inventions, and he was present on 14 Oct. 1788 when Symington and Miller first applied steam power for propelling a vessel on Dalswinton Lake; his sketch of the boat is engraved in James Nasmyth's ‘Autobiography.’ From that volume we learn that Miller, as a reward for his aid, advanced a sum of 500l. to enable the artist to visit Italy. He left in the end of 1782, visited Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Padua, and returned to Edinburgh in the end of 1784 with increased skill and many studies and sketches from nature. On 3 Jan. 1786 he married Barbara Foulis, daughter of William Foulis of Woodhall and Colinton, and sister of Sir James Foulis, seventh baronet of Woodhall.

He was introduced by Miller to Robert Burns, and in 1787 executed his celebrated cabinet-sized bust portrait of the poet, which he presented to Mrs. Burns. This portrait was bequeathed by her son, Colonel William Burns, to the National Gallery of Scotland. It was engraved in stipple by John Beugo, with the advantage of three sittings from the life, for the first Edinburgh edition of the ‘Poems,’ 1787, and the plate was repeatedly used in subsequent editions. There are various other engravings from this picture, the best being the mezzotint, on the scale of the original, executed by William Walker and Samuel Cousins in 1830, of which the painter stated that ‘it conveys a more true and lively remembrance of Burns than my own picture does.’ Nasmyth made two replicas of this portrait. One is in the National Portrait Gallery, London, the other in the possession of the Misses Cathcart of Auchendrane, Ayrshire. Nasmyth became intimate with the poet, and frequently accompanied him in his walks in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. On one of these occasions he executed a small full-length pencil sketch, formerly in the collection of Dr. David Laing, which served as the basis of a cabinet-sized full-length in oils, which he painted, apparently about 1827, ‘to enable him to leave his record in this way of the general personal appearance of Burns, as well as his style of dress.’ This picture is deposited by its owner, Sir Hugh Hume Campbell, in the National Gallery of Scotland. Its subject was engraved in line by W. Miller, with alterations in the background, in Lockhart's ‘Life of Burns,’ 1828.

Nasmyth's liberal views in politics having alienated his aristocratic patrons, his employment as a portrait-painter declined, and he finally restricted himself to landscape subjects, modelling his style chiefly upon the Dutch masters. His work of this class is admirably represented in the National Gallery by a large view of Stirling Castle, and, less adequately, in the National Gallery of Scotland by a smaller view of Stirling. Among other works, he painted the stock scenery of the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, which greatly impressed David Roberts in his youth, produced in 1820 the scenery for ‘The Heart of Midlothian’ in the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, and published in 1822 a series of views of places described by the author of ‘Waverley.’ He was an original member of the Society of Associated Artists, Edinburgh, contributing to their exhibitions 1808–14. He exhibited in the Royal Institution, Edinburgh, 1821–30, appearing as an associate of the body in 1825, and receiving an annuity from the directors in 1828; and he exhibited from 1830 to 1840 in the Royal Scottish Academy, of which he became an honorary member in 1834. He was a member of the Society of British Artists, London, and exhibited in their rooms, and in the Royal Academy and the British Institution between 1807 and 1839.

He devoted considerable attention to architecture, designing the Dean Bridge, Edinburgh, and the Temple to Hygeia at St. Bernard's Well, Water of Leith, submitting a design for the Nelson Monument, Calton Hill, and affording so many valuable suggestions regarding the laying out of the New Town of Edinburgh, that the magistrates presented him with a sum of 200l., with a complimentary letter addressed ‘Alexander Nasmyth, architect.’ Most of the illustrations in the essay ‘On the Origin of Gothic Architecture,’ by Sir James Hall of Dunglass, are from his pencil. Nasmyth was also much employed by the Duke of Athol and others regarding the laying out of parks and ornamental grounds. In construction his most important discovery was the ‘bow-and-string bridge,’ which he invented about 1794, and which has been much used for spanning wide spaces, as in the Charing Cross and Birmingham stations. His drawings of this bridge, dated 1796, are reproduced in James Nasmyth's ‘Autobiography.’ He died in Edinburgh 10 April 1840.

In addition to his sons, Patrick [q. v.] and James [q. v.], Nasmyth had six daughters, all known as artists—Jane, born in 1787, Barbara in 1790, Margaret in 1791, Elizabeth in 1793, Anne in 1798, and Charlotte in 1804. They contributed to the chief exhibitions in Edinburgh, London, and Manchester, and aided their father in the art classes held in his house, 47 York Place. Elizabeth Nasmyth married Daniel Terry the actor about 1821, and her second husband was Charles Richardson [q. v.], author of the well-known dictionary. A collection of 155 works by Nasmyth, his son Patrick, and his six daughters, was brought to the hammer in Tait's Sale-room, Edinburgh, on 13 May 1840.

The portraits of Nasmyth are: (1) an oil-sketch of him as a youth by Philip Reinagle, R.A., engraved in James Nasmyth's ‘Autobiography,’ from the original in the author's possession; (2) an admirable dry-point by Andrew Geddes, A.R.A.; (3) a water-colour by William Nicholson, R.S.A., reproduced in a very scarce mezzotint by Edward Burton; (4) a cameo by Samuel Joseph, R.S.A., engraved in James Nasmyth's ‘Autobiography.’ He is also included in a picture of the Edinburgh Dilettanti Club by Sir William Allan, P.R.S.A., which was acquired by Mr. Horrocks of Preston.

[James Nasmyth's Autobiography, London, 1883; Wilkie and Geddes's Etchings, Edinburgh, 1875; Chambers's Life and Works of Burns, 1891, ii. 31, iv. 161; Art Journal, vol. xxxiv. 1882; Redgrave's Dict. of Engl. Artists, London, 1878; Catalogues of Exhibitions, &c., mentioned above.]

J. M. G.