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 Alexander Nasmyth  (1758 - 1840)

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Lived/Active: England/United Kingdom/Scotland      Known for: landscape painting, illustration, teaching

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from Auction House Records.
View of Dreghorn Castle, Midlothian, with figures and a hay cart in the foreground
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Alexander Nasmyth was a painter, illustrator, landscape gardener and engineer. He was educated for a career in architecture, but at an early age he showed artistic talent, and in 1773 he was apprenticed to James Cummyng (c. 1730–92), a house decorator and antiquarian. Nasmyth painted panels for carriages at Alexander Crichton’s coachworks and attended evening classes at the Trustees’ Academy. When Allan Ramsay visited Crichton in 1774, he was impressed with Nasmyth’s ability. Nasmyth subsequently accompanied Ramsay to his London studio where he continued his apprenticeship for four years.

Nasmyth returned to Edinburgh at the end of 1778 and soon obtained ample employment as a portrait painter. His earliest works, for example John Scott of Malleny (1781; Malleny House, Lothian, National Trust Scotland), followed Ramsay’s practice of showing the head and shoulders of the sitter against a plain background, but Nasmyth gradually liberated himself from the conventions of his master, and within a few years he was placing his figures within landscape settings, lavishing as much care on the landscape details as on the sitters. Patrick Miller, a retired banker, discovered Nasmyth’s scientific capabilities and loaned him £500 with which to broaden his artistic education on the Continent.

Nasmyth arrived in Rome in April 1783. Views painted by him in later life from sketches made on the Continent suggest that he also visited the Bay of Naples, Bolsena, Ancona and Tivoli. He returned to Edinburgh at the end of 1784 and resumed painting portraits, the best known being of his close friend Robert Burns (1787; Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland).

Nasmyth’s liberal politics and outspokenness on the glaring abuses of the government embarrassed his aristocratic patrons. Despite warnings that commissions would cease, he persisted in expressing his beliefs, even ‘refusing to paint their…faces, preferring instead the beautiful face of nature’.

As early as 1788 Nasmyth described himself in the Edinburgh directories as ‘portrait and landscape painter’. His predominant theme was the Scottish landscape, usually containing an architectural feature often seen across water, the distance bathed in mist, for example Lugar Water (Aberdeen Art Gallery) and Loch Tay with Kenmore Bridge (1810; Tayside, private collection).

Nasmyth’s style appears to have been molded principally on that of Claude Lorrain in arrangement, colour and mood, and on Jacob van Ruysdael in the handling of water, trees and foreground details. Rather than paint directly what he saw, Nasmyth would generally follow prevalent Picturesque theories as propounded by William Gilpin, first searching out the finest view and then editing or improving it to achieve a harmonious balance. He painted his pictures in the studio, working from small pencil sketches often made many years earlier. The paintings were then worked up from several layers of pigment and glazing to achieve a feeling of layered depth, the top leaves painted in minute and regular clusters of three or four. Throughout his life he used greens, browns and russet for the trees and foreground; pinks and browns for the paths and buildings; blue, grey–white, pinks and oranges for the skies, which were often the most colourful part of the composition. Nasmyth’s style, once formulated, displayed a remarkable consistency in both vision and technique throughout his career. From 1832 he suffered from gout and rheumatism, and
the effects of old age rendered his later works less precise.

Nasmyth owned the upper floors of 47 York Place, which included a large studio, from 1799. As the Napoleonic Wars rendered the Continent unsafe for travel, Edinburgh assumed greater importance as a cultural centre, and Nasmyth responded to an increased demand for art classes. Among his pupils were David Wilkie, David
Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield, William Allan, Andrew Robertson, Andrew Geddes, Hugh William Williams and John Thomson. Nasmyth’s teaching methods involved short instructive talks at the easel combined with copying objects, sometimes using the camera obscura. He did not take on apprentices in the conventional sense, and his relationships with pupils were informal.

Nasmyth also produced the stock scenery for the principal Scottish theatres and those in Drury Lane in London. His scenery for Glasgow, which consisted of streets, houses, cottages, palaces, interiors and landscapes, ‘excited universal admiration’, according to David Roberts. Possibly as a result of the success in 1818 of the scenery for The Heart of Midlothian (sketches in Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland), Nasmyth was commissioned by Walter Scott through his publisher Archibald Constable to provide vignette engravings for the 1821 edition of the Waverley novels. In all Nasmyth contributed over 60 illustrations to Scott’s works.

Nasmyth had considerable talents as an engineer. He designed a tunnel under the Forth (Scotsman Magazine, 1807, pp. 189, 243) and made designs for bridges and bridge-building (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland). The bow-and-string bridge and arch, used commonly for spanning rivers or the roofs of factories and railway stations, was his invention (1794), as was compression riveting (1816).

Nasmyth continued the family tradition of beautifying his native city. He designed St Bernard’s Well, the small temple over the Waters of Leith, and provided the original design for the Dean Bridge. He was keenly interested in the progress of the New Town, frequently making suggestions and models and discussing his ideas with the architects and builders.

The work of Alexander Nasmyth is represented in the following collections: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; National Portrait Gallery, London; National Trust Scotland; City Art Gallery, Manchester; Royal Collection, Balmoral, Grampian; City Chambers, Edinburgh; Clydesdale Bank Collection, Glasgow; Dalmeny House, Lothian; McManus Galleries, Dundee; various private collections, amongst others.

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