Alexander Nasmyth (or Naismythe), portrait and landscape painter, scene-painter, art teacher, architect, and landscaper, was born on the 9th of September, 1758.
Alexander Nasmyth was a painter of pictures and a decorator of gardens. Nasmyth first gained recognition as a painter of portraits, with his most famous work being his admirable likeness of his mate, Robert Burns, the original of which hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery; a valuable national monument. There are original copies, by the artist, in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, in London. There are also millions of additional copies of that well known image, all over the world, by virtue of William Walker’s engraving. Notwithstanding that fine work, it is as a landscape painter that Nasmyth is better known, being widely regarded as one of the most important and influential painters of Scottish landscapes. Indeed, another one of his mates, Sir David Wilkie (not a bad artist himself, mind you and, therefore, a decent judge), is often credited with having described Nasmyth as, “the father of Scottish landscape painting.”
What Wilkie actually said was that, “[Nasmyth was] the founder of the Landscape Painting School of Scotland,” but he went on to add “[that] by his taste and talent [Nasmyth] has for many years taken the lead in the patriotic aim of enriching his native land with the representations of her romantic scenery.” Landscapes apart, some of Nasmyth’s most accomplished works are ‘townscapes’ depicting the wynds and closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and his ‘Shipping at Leith’ (a ‘seascape’ in Edinburgh City Art Centre) is said to be on a par with any of the ‘Dutch Masters’. Nasmyth’s style tended towards a faithful reproduction of nature and he is on record as having said, “The nearer you can get to that the better.” It’s probably a good thing that Nasmyth escaped from painting head and shoulders.
Older biographies wax lyrical about Nasmyth being drawn to landscape painting, because of the “silent beauty of nature” and of nature possessing more appeal than the “human face divine,” but the truth is far more prosaic. Like Burns, Nasmyth was a Whig at a time when political feeling ran high, and his outspoken sincerity in that cause cost him many offended, aristocratic patrons. His opportunities as a portraitist were consequently diminished and that’s why, from around 1792, he turned to landscapes. If he needed further motivation to change tack, there was also Sir Henry Raeburn with whom he had to compete. In fact Nasmyth was mates with Raeburn and Leitch as well as Burns and Wilkie and can surely hold his own in that company. Nasmyth influenced many Scottish artists, not least his own offspring, of whom, Patrick, the eldest, is the most notable, and as Wilkie adjudged, Nasmyth’s teachings did indeed provide the groundwork for the 19th Century Scottish landscape tradition. Nasmyth was also a founder member of the Society of Associated Artists of Edinburgh.
Alexander Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, on the 9th of September, 1758. When he was wee enough to be called Eck, he went to Edinburgh’s Royal High School and afterwards, he attended evening classes at the Trustees’ Academy, where Alexander Runciman was Master. Despite having been set up for a career in architecture, in 1773, Alec became an apprentice to a house decorator and antiquarian, James Cummyng. His artistic talents had begun to show and Alexander got a second day job, at Alexander Crichton’s coachworks, decorating the panels of carriages with heraldic details. So it was that Nasmyth came to the attention of Allan Ramsay when that man visited Crichton, in 1774. Ramsay was impressed with Nasmyth’s ability and invited him to London, where, over four years under Ramsay’s tutelage, the diligent youngster completed his apprenticeship. Nasmyth became good enough to be trusted with finishing work on Ramsay’s own paintings and, in 1778, went back to Edinburgh and established his own studio.
In those 18th Century days an artist would hardly have been considered to have completed his education until he had studied the works of the great masters in Italy and Nasmyth was no exception. One of his patrons was Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, for whom Nasmyth also acted as draughtsman, producing technical drawings for Miller’s paddle driven steam boat. In turn, Miller lent Nasmyth £500 to enable him to fulfill his dream of visiting the likes of Florence and Rome and Bologna and Padua. Nasmyth spent two years, from 1782 to 1784, in Italy, studying and practicing and learning and absorbing all he could about historical painting, portraiture and the rich Italian landscapes. It was when he got back to Edinburgh, that Nasmyth painted his excellent portrait of Robert Burns and, in order to supplement his income, turned his hand to other things.
Apart from being a radical Whig, Nasmyth was a bit of a polymath. He worked as a garden landscape designer, an architectural consultant and, as David Roberts put it, “excited universal admiration” as a scene-painter for the Theatres Royal in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Nasmyth the architect is well known for having designed the temple-like structure that houses St. Bernard’s Well by the Water of Leith in Stockbridge. He was also the designer of the Dean Bridge, and other bridges at Almondell, West Lothian and Tongland, and he contributed to early plans for Edinburgh’s New Town. Details are scarce, but he is also credited with having “explored optical science and naval engineering.”
Not content with all those achievements, in 1798, Nasmyth opened a school of painting in his own house, in Edinburgh. His affinity with nature was obvious from his landscapes, but Nasmyth took that into the classroom, innovatively underpinning his personal philosophy through his teaching. He insisted that his pupils drew real scenes outdoors, drawing directly from nature, rather than artificially in the studio. Apart from his own family, Alexander Nasmyth went on to instill in a whole generation of Scottish artists “the importance of drawing,” from which he drew great pleasure until he reached a grand old age, of which he died, on the 10th of April, 1840, at his home in Edinburgh. He was buried in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard.