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Born 1758 - Grassmarket , Edinburgh - Education , The Bibler's Seat , The brothers Erskine , Apprenticed to a coachbuilder , The Trustees' Academy , Huguenot artisans , Alexander Runciman , Copy of "The Laocoon" , Assistant to Allan Ramsay , Faculty of resourcefulness , Begins as portrait painter , Friendship with Miller of Dalswinton , Miller and the first steamboat , Visit to Italy , Marriage to Barbara Foulis , Burns the poet , Edinburgh clubs , Landscape beauty , Abandons portrait for landscape painting , David Roberts, R.A. , Dean Bridge , St. Bernard's Well , Nelson's Monument , Bow-and-string bridges , Sunday rivet
My father, Alexander Nasmyth, was the second son of Michael Nasmyth. He was born in his father's house in the Grassmarket on the 9th of September 1758. The Grassmarket was then a lively place. On certain days of the week it was busy with sheep and cattle fairs. It was the centre of Edinburgh traffic. Most of the inns were situated there, or in the street leading up to the Greyfriars Church gate.
The view from my grandfather's house was very grand. Standing up, right opposite, was the steep Castle rock, with its crown buildings and circular battery towering high overhead. They seemed almost to hang over the verge of the rock. The houses on the opposite side of the Grassmarket were crowded under the esplanade of the Castle Hill.
There was an inn opposite the house where my father was born, from which the first coach started from Edinburgh to Newcastle. The public notice stated that "The Coach would set out from the Grass Market ilka Tuesday at Twa o'clock in the day, GOD WULLIN', but whether or no on Wednesday." The "whether or no was meant, I presume, as a precaution to passengers, in case all the places on the coach might be taken, or not, on Wednesday,
The Grassmarket was also the place for public executions. The gibbet stone was at the east end of the Market. It consisted of a mass of solid sandstone, with a quadrangular hole in the middle, which served as a socket for the gallows. Most of the Covenanters who were executed for conscience' sake in the reigns of Charles II. and James II. breathed their last at this spot. The Porteous mob, in 1736, had its culmination here. When Captain Porteous was dragged out of the Tolbooth in the High Street and hurried down the West Bow, the gallows was not in its place; but the leaders of the mob hanged him from a dyer's pole, nearly opposite the gallows stone, on the south side of the street, not far from my grandfather's door See Heart of Midlothian
I have not much to say about my father's education. For the most part, he was his own schoolmaster. I have heard him say that his mother taught him his A B C; and that he afterwards learned to read at Mammy Smith's. This old lady kept a school for boys and girls at the top of a house in the Grassmarket. There my father was taught to rear his Bible, and to repeat his Carritch#
As it was only the bigger boys who could read the Bible, the strongest of them consummated the feat by climbing up the Castle rock, and reaching what they called "The Bibler's Seat." It must have been a break-neck adventure to get up to the place. The seat was almost immediately under the window of the room in which James VI was born. My father often pointed it out to me as one of the most dangerous bits of climbing in which he had been engaged in his younger years.
The annexed illustration is from his own slight sepia drawing; the Bibler's Seat is marked + Not so daring, but much more mischievous, was a trick which he played with some of his companions on the tops of the houses on the north side of the Grassmarket. The boys took a barrel to the Castlehill, filled it with small stones, and then shot it down towards the roofs of the houses in the Grassmarket. The barrel leapt from rock to rock, burst, and scattered a shower of stones far and wide. The fun was to see the "boddies" look out of their garret windows with their lighted lamps or candles, peer into the dark, and try to see what was the cause of the mischief.
Among my father's favourite companions were the two sons of Dr. John Erskine, minister of Old Greyfriars, in conjunction with the equally celebrated Dr. Robertson. Dr. Erskine [note: Dr. Erskine is well described by Scott in Guy Mannering, on the occasion when Pleydell and Mannering went to hear him preach a famous sermon.]
was a man of great influence in his day, well known for his literary and theological works, as well as for his piety and practical benevolence. On one occasion, when my father was at play with his sons, one of them threw a stone, which smashed a neighbour's window. A servant of the house ran out, and seeing the culprit, called out, "Very wee!, Maister Erskine, I'll tell yeer faither wha broke the windae !" On which the boy, to throw her off the scent, said to his brother loudly, "Eh, keist! she thinks we're the boddy Erskine's sons."
The boddy Erskine! Who ever heard of such an irreverent nickname applied to that good and great man? "The laddies couldna be his sons," thought the woman. She made no further inquiry, and the boys escaped scot free. The culprit afterwards entered the service of the East India Company. "The boy was father to the man." He acquired great reputation at the siege of Seringapatam, where he led the forlorn hope. Erskine was promoted, until in course of time he returned to his native city a full-blown general. To return to my father's education. After he left "Mammy Smith's, he went for a short time to the original High School. It was an old establishment, founded by James VI. before he succeeded to the English throne, It was afterwards demolished to make room for the University buildings; and the new High School was erected a little below the old Royal Infirmary. After leaving the High School, Alexander Nasmyth was taught by his father, first arithmetic and mensuration, next geometry and mathematics, so far as the first three books of Euclid were concerned. After that, his own innate skill, ability, and industry enabled him to complete the rest of his education.
At a very early period my father exhibited a decided natural taste for art. He used his pencil freely in sketching from nature; and in course of time he showed equal skill in the use of oil colour. At his own earnest request he was bound apprentice to Mr . Crighton, then the chief coachbuilder in Edinburgh. He was employed in that special department where artistic taste was necessary -- that is, in decorating the panels of the highest class of carriages, and painting upon them coats of arms, with their crests and supporters. He took great pleasure in this kind of work. It introduced him to the practical details of heraldry, and gave him command over his materials.
Still further to improve himself in the art of drawing, my father devoted his evenings to attending the Edinburgh Drawing Academy. This institution, termed "The Trustees' Academy of Fine Art," had been formed and supported by the funds arising from the estates confiscated after the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 . Part of these funds was set apart by Government for the encouragement of drawing, and also for the establishment of the arts of linen weaving, carpet manufacture, and other industrial occupations.
These arts were introduced into Scotland by the French Protestants, who had been persecuted for conscience' sake out of their own country, and settled in England, Ireland, and Scotland, where they prosecuted their industrial callings. The Corporation was anxious to afford an asylum for these skilled and able workmen. The emigrants settled down with their families, and pursued their occupations of damask, linen, and carpet weaving. They were also required to take Scotch apprentices, and teach them the various branches of their trade. The Magistrates caused cottages and workshops to be erected on a piece of unoccupied land near Edinburgh, where the street appropriately called Picardy Place now stands, -- the greater number of the weavers having come from Picardy in France.
In connection with the establishment of these industrial artisans, it was necessary to teach the young Scotch apprentices drawing, for the purpose of designing new patterns suitable for the market. Hence the establishment by the Trustees of the Forfeited Estate Funds of "The Academy of Fine Art." From the designing of patterns, the institution advanced to the improvement of the fine arts generally. Young men who had given proofs of their natural taste for drawing were invited to enter the school and participate in its benefits.
At the time that my father was apprenticed to the coach painter, the Trustees' Academy was managed by Alexander Runciman. He had originally been a house painter, from which business he proceeded to landscape painting. "Other artists," said one who knew him, "talked meat and drink; but Runciman talked landscape." He went to Rome and studied art there. He returned to Edinburgh, and devoted himself to historical painting. He was also promoted to the office of master of the Trustees' Academy. When my father called upon him with his drawings from nature, Runciman found them so satisfactory that he was at once admitted as a student. After his admission he began to study with intense eagerness. The young men who had been occupied at their business during the day could only attend in the evening. And thus the evenings were fixed for studying drawing and design. The Trustees' Academy made its mark upon the art of Scotland: it turned out many artists of great note -- such as Raeburn, Wilkie, my father, and many more.
At the time when my father entered as a student, the stock of casts from the antique, and the number of drawings from the old masters, were very small; so much so, indeed, that Runciman was under the necessity of setting the students to copy them again and again. This became rather irksome to the more ardent pupils. My father had completed his sixth copy of a fine chalk drawing of "The Laocoon." It was then set for him to copy again. He begged Mr. Runciman for another subject. The quick-tempered man at once said,"l'll give you another subject." And turning the group of the Laocoon upside down, he added, "Now, then, copy that!" The patient youth set to work, and in a few evenings completed a perfect copy. It was a most severe test; but Runciman was so proud of the skill of his pupil that he had the drawing mounted and framed, with a note of the circumstances under which it had been produced. It continued to hang there for many years, and the story of its achievement became traditional in the school.
During all this time my father remained in the employment of Crighton the carriage builder. He improved in his painting day by day. But at length an important change took place in his career. Allan Ramsay, son of the author of The Gentle Shepherd, and then court painter to George III., called upon his old friend Crighton one day, to look over his works. There he found young Nasmyth painting a coat of arms on the panel of a carriage. He was so much surprised with the lad's artistic workmanship -- for he was then only sixteen -- that he formed a strong desire to take him into his service. After much persuasion, backed by the offer of a considerable sum of money, the coachbuilder was at length induced to transfer my father's indentures to Allan Ramsay.
It was, of course, a great delight to my father to be removed to London under such favourable auspices. Ramsay had a large connection as a portrait painter. His object in employing my father was that he should assist him in the execution of the subordinate parts, or dress portions, of portraits of courtiers, or of diplomatic personages. No more favourable opportunity for advancement could have presented itself. But all this was entirely due to my father's perseverance and advancing skill as an artist -- the results of his steady application and labour.
Ramsay possessed a very fine collection of drawings by the old masters, all of which were free for my father to study. Ramsay was exceedingly kind to his young pupil. He was present at all the discussions in the studio, even when the sitters were present. Fellow-artists visited Ramsay from time to time. Among them was his intimate friend Philip Reinagle -- an agreeable companion, and an excellent artist. Reinagle was one day so much struck with my father's earnestness in filling up some work, that he then and there got up a canvas and made a capital sketch-portrait of him in oil. It only came into my father's possession some years after Ramsay's death, and is now in my possession.
Among the many amusing recollections of my father's life in London, there is one that I cannot resist narrating, because it shows his faculty of resourcefulness -- a faculty which served him very usefully during his course through life. He had made an engagement with a sweetheart to take her to Ranelagh, one of the most fashionable places of public amusement in London. Everybody went in full dress, and the bucks and swells wore long striped silk stockings. My father, on searching , found that he had only one pair of silk stockings left. He washed them himself in his lodging-room, and hung them up before the fire to dry. When he went to look at them, they were so singed and burnt that he could not put them on. They were totally useless. In this sad dilemma his resourcefulness came to his aid. The happy idea occurred to him of painting his legs so as to resemble stockings. He went to his water-colour box, and dexterously painted them with black and white stripes. When the paint dried, which it soon did, he completed his toilet, met his sweetheart and went to Ranelagh. No one observed the difference, except, indeed, that he was complimented on the perfection of the fit, and was asked "where he bought his stockings?" Of course he evaded the question, and left the gardens without any one discovering his artistic trick.
My father remained in Allan Ramsay's service until the end of 1778, when he returned to Edinburgh to practise on his own behalf the profession of portrait painter. He took with him the kindest good-wishes of his master, whose friendship he retained to the end of Ramsay's life. The artistic style of my father's portraits, and the excellent likenesses of his sitters, soon obtained for him ample employment. His portraits were for the most part full-lengths, but of a small or cabinet size. They generally consisted of family groups, with the figures about twelve to fourteen inches high. The groups were generally treated and arranged as if the personages were engaged in conversation with their children; and sometimes a favourite servant was introduced, so as to remove any formal aspect in the composition of the picture. In order to enliven the background, some favourite view from the garden or grounds, or a landscape, was given; which was painted with as much care as if it was the main feature of the picture. Many of these paintings are still to be found in the houses of the gentry in Scotland. Good examples of his art are to be seen at Minto House, the seat of the Earl of Minto, and at Dalmeny Park, the seat of the Earl of Rosebery.
Among my father's early employers was Patrick Miller, Esq., of Dalswinton, in Dumfriesshire. He painted Mr. Miller's portrait as well as those of several members of his family. This intercourse eventually led to the establishment of a very warm personal friendship between them. Miller had made a large fortune in Edinburgh as a banker; and after he had partially retired from business, he devoted much of his spare time to useful purposes. He was a man of great energy of character, and was never idle. At first he applied himself to the improvement of agriculture, which he did with great success on his estate of Dalswinton. Being one of the largest shareholders in the Carron Ironworks near Stirling, he also devoted much of his time to the improvement of guns for the Royal Navy. He was the inventor of that famous gun the Carronade. The handiness of these short and effective guns, which were capable of being loaded and fired nearly twice as quickly as the long small-bore guns, gave England the victory in many a naval battle, where the firing was close and quick, yardarm to yardarm.
But Mr. Miller's greatest claim to fame arises from his endeavours to introduce steam-power as an agent in the propulsion of ships at sea. Mr. Clerk of Eldin had already invented the system of "breaking the line" in naval engagements -- a system that was first practised with complete success by Lord Rodney in his engagement off Martinico in 1780. The subject interested Mr. Miller so much that he set himself to work to contrive some mechanical method by means of which ships of war might be set in motion, independently of wind, tide, or calms, so that Clerk's system of breaking the line might be carried into effect under all circumstances.
It was about this time that my father was often with Miller; and the mechanical devices by means of which the method of breaking the line could be best accomplished was the subject of many of their conversations. Miller found that my father's taste for mechanical contrivances, and his ready skill as a draughtsman, were likely to be of much use to him, and he constantly visited the studio. My father reduced Miller's ideas to a definite form, and prepared a series of drawings, which were afterwards engraved and published. Miller's favourite design was, to divide the vessel into twin or triple hulls, with paddles between them, to be worked by the crew. The principal experiment was made in the Firth of Forth on the 2d of June 1787. The vessel was double-hulled, and was worked by a capstan of five bars. The experiment was on the whole successful. But the chief difficulty was in the propulsive power. After a spurt of an hour or so, the men became tired with their laborious work. Mr. Taylor, student of divinity, and tutor of Mr. Miller's sons, was on board, and seeing the exhausted state of the men at the capstan, suggested the employment of steam-power. Mr. Miller was pleased with the idea, and resolved to make inquiry upon the subject.
At that time William Symington, a young engineer from Wanlockhead, was exhibiting a road locomotive in Edinburgh. He was a friend of Taylor's, and Mr. Miller went to see the Symington model. In the course of his conversation with the inventor, he informed the latter of his own project, and described the difficulty he had experienced in getting his paddle-wheels turned round. On which Symington immediately asked, "Why don't you use the steam-engine?" The model which Symington exhibited, produced rotary motion by the employment of ratchet-wheels. The rectilinear motion of the piston-rod was thus converted into rotary motion. Mr. Miller was pleased with the action of the ratchet-wheel contrivance, and gave Symington an order to make a pair of engines of that construction. They were to be used on a small pleasure-boat on Dalswinton Lake.
The boat was constructed on the double-hull or twin plan, so that the paddle should be used in the space between the hulls.[note: This steam twin boat was in fact the progenitor of the Castalia, constructed about a hundred years later for the conveyance of passengers between Calais and Dover.]
After much vexatious delay, arising from the entire novelty of the experiment, the boat and engines were at length completed, and removed to Dalswinton Lake. This, the first steamer that ever "trod the waters like a thing of life," the herald of a new and mighty power, was tried on the 14th of October 1788. The vessel steamed delightfully, at the rate of from four to five miles an hour, though this was not her extreme rate of speed. I give, on the next page, a copy of a sketch made by my father of this the first actual steamboat, with her remarkable crew.
The first steamboat. By Alexander Nasmyth[note: The original drawing of the steamer was done by my father, and lent by me to Mr. Woodcroft, Who inserted it in his Origin and Progress of Steam Navigation. He omitted my father's name, and inserted only that of the lithographer, although it is a document of almost national importance in the history of Steam Navigation.
P.S.-- since the above paragraph was written for the first edition, I have been enabled to find the drawing, with another remarkable pencil sketch of my father's, in the Gallery of the Museum of Naval Architecture at South Kensington. It will henceforward belong to that interesting collection.
The remarkable pencil sketch to which I have referred, is that of a screw propeller, drawn by my father, dated 1819. It was the result of many discussions as to the proper mode of propelling a vessel. First, he had drawn Watt's idea of a "spiral oar"; then, underneath, he has drawn his own idea, of a disk of six. blades, like a screw-jack, immediately behind the rudder. There is a crank shown on the screw shaft, by which the propeller was driven direct, showing that he was the first to indicate that method of propulsion of steamboats.]
The persons on board consisted of Patrick Miller, William Symington, Sir William Monteith, Robert Burns (the poet, then a tenant of Mr Miller's), William Taylor, and Alexander Nasmyth. There were also three of Mr. Miller's servants, who acted as assistants. On the edge of the lake was a young gentleman, then on a visit to Dalswinton. He was no less a person than Henry Brougham, afterwards Lord Chancellor of England. The assemblage of so many remarkable men was well worthy of the occasion.
Taking into account the extraordinary results which have issued from this first trial of an actual steamboat, it may well be considered that this was one of the most important circumstances which ever occurred in the history of navigation. It ought, at the same time, to be remembered that all that was afterwards done by Symington, Fulton, and Bell, followed long after the performance of this ever-memorable achievement.
I may also mention, as worthy of special record, that the hull of this first steamboat was of iron. It was constructed of tinned iron plate. It was therefore the first iron steamboat, if not the first iron ship, that had ever been made. I may also add that the engines, constructed by Symington, which propelled this first iron steamboat are now carefully preserved at the Patent Museum at South Kensington, where they may be seen by everybody.[note: The original engines of the boat, with the ratchet-wheel contrivance of Symington, are there: the very engine that propelled the first steamer on Dalswinton Lake. It may be added that Mr. Miller expended about £30,000 on naval improvements, and, as is often the case, he was wholly neglected by the Government.]
To return to my father's profession as a portrait painter. He had given so much assistance to Mr. Miller, while acting as his chief draughtsman in connection with the triple and twin ships, and also while attending him at Leith and elsewhere, that it had considerably interfered with his practice; though everything was done by him con amore, in the best sense of the term. In return for this, however, Mr. Miller made my father the generous offer of a loan to enable him to visit Italy, and pursue his studies there. It was the most graceful mode in which Mr. Miller could express his obligations. It was an offer pure and simple, without security, and as such was thankfully accepted by my father.
In those days an artist was scarcely considered to have completed his education until he had studied the works of the great masters at Florence and Rome. My father left England for Italy on the 30th of December 1782. He reached Rome in safety, and earnestly devoted himself to the study of art. He remained in Italy for the greater part of two years. He visited Florence, Bologna, Padua, and other cities where the finest artistic works were to be found. He made studies and drawings of the best of them, besides making sketches from nature of the most remarkable places he had visited. He returned to Edinburgh at the end of 1784, and immediately resumed his profession of a portrait painter. He was so successful that in a short time he was enabled to repay his excellent friend Miller the £500 which he had so generously lent him a few years before.
The satisfactory results of his zealous practice, and of his skill and industry in his profession, together with the prospect of increasing artistic work, enabled him to bring to a happy conclusion an engagement he had entered into before leaving Edinburgh for Italy. I mean his marriage to my mother -- one of the greatest events of his life which took place on the 3rd of January 1786. Barbara Foulis was a distant relation of his own. She was the daughter of William Foulis, Esq., of Woodhall and Colinton, near Edinburgh. Her brother, the late Sir James Foulis, my uncle, succeeded to the ancient baronetcy of the family. See Burkes's Peerage and Baronetage[note: In Burke's Peerage and Baronetage an account is given of the Foulis family. They are of Norman origin. A branch settled in Scotland in the reign of Malcolm Canmore. By various intermarriages, the Foulises are connected with the Hopetoun, Bute, and Rosebery families. The present holder of the title represents the houses of Colinton, Woodhall, and Ravelstone.]
My mother did not bring with her any fortune, so to speak, in the way of gold or acres; but she brought something far better into my father's home, -- a sweetness of disposition, and a large measure of common sense, which made her, in all respects, the devoted helpmate of her husband. Her happy cheerful temperament, and her constant industry and attention, shed an influence upon all around her. By her example she inbred in her children the love of truth, excellence, and goodness. That was indeed the best fortune she could bring into a good man's home.
During the first year of my father's married life, when he lived in St. James's Square, he painted the well-known portrait of Robert Burns the poet. Burns had been introduced to him by Mr. Miller at Dalswinton. An intimate friendship sprang up between the artist and the poet. The love of nature and of natural objects was common to both. They also warmly sympathised in their political views. When Burns visited Edinburgh my father often met him. Burns had a strange aversion to sit for his portrait, though often urgently requested to do so. But when at my father's studio, Burns at last consented, and his portrait was rapidly painted. It was done in the course of a few hours, and my father made a present of it to Mrs. Burns. A mezzotint engraving of it was afterwards published by William Walker, son-in-law of the famous Samuel Reynolds. When the first proof impression was submitted to my father, he said to Mr. Walker: "I cannot better express to you my opinion of your admirable engraving, than by telling you that it conveys to me a more true and lively remembrance of Burns than my own picture of him does; it so perfectly renders the spirit of his expression, as well as the details of his every feature."
While Burns was in Edinburgh, my father had many interesting walks with him in the neighbourhood of the city. The Calton Hill, Arthur's Seat, Salisbury Crags. Habbie's How, and the nooks in the Pentlands, were always full of interest; and Burns, with his brilliant and humorous conversation, made the miles very short as they strode along. Lockhart says, in his Life of Burns, that "the magnificent scenery of the Scottish capital filled the poet with extraordinary delight. In the spring mornings he walked very often to the top of Arthur's Seat, and, lying prostrate on the turf, surveyed the rising of the sun out of the sea in silent admiration; his chosen companion on such occasions being that learned artist and ardent lover of nature, Alexander Nasmyth."
A visit which the two paid to Roslin Castle is worthy of commemoration. On one occasion my father and a few choice spirits had been spending a "nicht wi' Burns." The place of resort was a tavern in the High Street, Edinburgh. As Burns was a brilliant talker, full of spirit and humour, time fled until the "wee sma' hours ayont the twal'" arrived. The party broke up about three o'clock. At that time of the year (the 13th of June) the night is very short, and morning comes early. Burns, on reaching the street, looked up to the sky. It was perfectly clear, and the rising sun was beginning to brighten the mural crown of St. Giles's Cathedral.
Burns was so much struck with the beauty of the morning that he put his hand on my father's arm and said, "It'll never do to go to bed in such a lovely morning as this! Let's awa' to Roslin Castle." No sooner said than done. The poet and the painter set out. Nature lay bright and lovely before them in that delicious summer morning. After an eight-miles walk they reached the castle at Roslin. Burns went down under the great Norman arch, where he stood rapt in speechless admiration of the scene. The thought of the eternal renewal of youth and freshness of nature, contrasted with the crumbling decay of man's efforts to perpetuate his work, even when founded upon a rock, as Roslin Castle is, seemed greatly to affect him.
My father was so much impressed with the scene that, while Burns was standing under the arch, he took out his pencil and a scrap of paper and made a hasty sketch of the subject. This sketch was highly treasured by my father, in remembrance of what must have been one of the most memorable days of his life.
Talking of clubs reminds me that there was a good deal of club life in Edinburgh in those days. The most notable were those in which the members were drawn together by occupations, habits, or tastes. They met in the evenings, and conversed upon congenial subjects. The clubs were generally held in one or other of the taverns situated in or near the High Street. Every one will remember the Lawyers' Club, held in an Edinburgh close, presided over by Pleydell, so well described by Scott in Guy Mannering.
In my father's early days he was a member of a very jovial club, called the Poker Club. It was so-called because the first chairman, immediately on his election, in a spirit of drollery, laid hold of the poker at the fireplace, and adopted it as his insignia of office. He made a humorous address from the chair, or "the throne," as he called it, with sceptre or poker in hand; and the club was thereupon styled by acclamation "The Poker Club." I have seen my father's diploma of membership; it was tastefully drawn on parchment, with the poker duly emblazoned on it as the regalia of the club.
In my own time, the club that he was most connected with was the Dilettanti Club. Its meetings were held every fortnight, on Thursday evenings, in a commodious tavern in the High Street. The members were chiefly artists, or men known for their love of art. Among then were Henry Raeburn, Hugh Williams (the Grecian), Andrew Geddes, William Thomson, John Shetkay, William Nicholson, William Allan, Alexander Nasmyth, the Rev. John Thomson of Duddingston, George Thomson, Sir Walter Scott, John Lockhart, Dr. Brewster, David Wilkie, Henry Cockburn, Francis Jeffrey, John A. Murray, Professor Wilson, John Ballantyne, James Ballantyne, James Hogg (the Ettrick Shepherd), and David Bridges, the secretary.[note: Davie Bridges was a character. In my early days he was a cloth merchant in the High Street. His shop was very near that gigantic lounge, the old Parliament House, and was often resorted to by non-business visitors. Bridges had a good taste for pictures. He had a small but choice collection by the Old Masters, which he kept arranged in the warehouse under his shop. He took great pride in exhibiting them to his visitors, and expatiating upon their excellence. I remember being present in his warehouse with my father when a very beautiful small picture by Richard Wilson was under review. Davie burst out emphatically with, "Eh, man, did ye ever see such glorious buttery touches as on these clouds!" His joking friends clubbed him "Director-General of the Fine Arts for Scotland," a title which he complacently accepted. Besides showing off his pictures, Davie was an art critic, and wrote articles for the newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, however, his attention to pictures prevented him from attending to his shop, and his customers (who were not artists) forsook him, and bought their clothes elsewhere. He accordingly shut up his shop, and devoted himself to art criticism, in which, for a time, he possessed a monopoly.]
The drinks were restricted to Edinburgh ale and whisky toddy.
An admirable picture of the club in full meeting was painted by William Allan, in which characteristic portraits of all the leading members were introduced in full social converse. Among the more prominent portraits is one of my father, who is represented as illustrating some subject he is describing, by drawing it on the part of the table before him, with his finger dipped in toddy. Other marked and well-known characteristics of the members are skilfully introduced in the picture. The artist afterwards sold it to Mr. Horrocks of Preston, in Lancashire.
Besides portrait painting, my father was much employed in assisting the noblemen and landed gentry of Scotland in improving the landscape appearance of their estates, especially when seen from their mansion windows. His fine taste, and his love of natural scenery, gave him great advantages in this respect. He selected the finest sites for the new mansions, when they were erected in lieu of the old towers and crenellated castles. Or, he designed alterations of the old buildings so as to preserve their romantic features, and at the same time to fit them for the requirements of modern domestic life.
In those early days of art-knowledge, there scarcely existed any artistic feeling for the landscape beauty of nature. There was an utter want of appreciation of the dignified beauty of the old castles and mansions, the remnants of which were in too many instances carted away as material for now buildings. There was also at that time an utter ignorance of the beauty and majesty of old trees. A forest of venerable oaks or beeches was a thing to be done away with. They were merely cut down as useless timber; even when they so finely embellished the landscape. My father exerted himself successfully to preserve these grand old forest trees. His fine sketches served to open the eyes of their possessors to the priceless treasures they were about to destroy; and he thus preserved the existence of many a picturesque old tree. He even took the pains in many cases to model the part of the estate he was dealing with; and he also modelled the old trees he wished to preserve. Thus, by a judicious clearing out of the intercepting young timber, he opened out distant views of the landscape, and at the same time preserved many a monarch of the forest.[note: It is even now to be deeply deplored that those who inherit or come into possession of landed estates do not feel sufficiently impressed with the possession of such grand memorials of the past. Alas! how often have we to lament the want of taste that leads to the sacrifice of these venerable treasures. Would that the young men at our universities especially those likely to inherit estates -- were impressed with the importance of preserving them. They would thus confer an inestimable benefit to thousands. About forty years ago Lord Cockburn published a pamphlet on How to Destroy the Beauty of Edinburgh! He enforced the charm of green foliage in combination with street architecture. The burgesses were then cutting down trees. His lordship went so far as to say "that he would as soon cut down a burgess as a tree!" Since then the growth of trees in Edinburgh, especially in what was once the North Loch, has been greatly improved; and might be still further improved if that famous tree, "The London plane," were employed.]
My father modelled old castles, old trees, and such like objects as he wished to introduce into his landscapes. The above illustration, may perhaps give a slight idea of his artistic skill as a modeller. I specially refer to this, which he called "The Family Tree," as he required each member of his family to assist in its production. We each made a twig or small branch, which he cleverly fixed into its place as a part of the whole. The model tree in question was constructed of wire slightly twisted together, so as to form the main body of a branch. It was then subdivided into branchlets, and finally into individual twigs. All these, combined together by his dexterous hand, resulted in the model of an old leafless tree, so true and correct, that any one would have thought that it had been modelled direct from nature.
The Duke of Athol consulted my father as to the improvements which he desired to make in his woodland scenery near Dunkeld. The Duke was desirous that a rocky crag, called Craigybarns, should be planted with trees, to relieve the grim barrenness of its appearance. But it was impossible for any man to climb the crag in order to set seeds or plants in the clefts of the rocks. A happy idea struck my father. Having observed in front of the castle a pair of small cannon used for firing salutes, it occurred to him to turn them to account. His object was to deposit the seeds of the various trees amongst the soil in the clefts of the crag. A tinsmith in the village was ordered to make a number of canisters with covers. The canisters were filled with all sorts of suitable tree seeds. A cannon was loaded, and the canisters were fired up against the high face of the rock. They burst and scattered the seed in all directions. Some years after, when my father revisited the place, he was delighted to find that his scheme of planting by artillery had proved completely successful; for the trees were flourishing luxuriantly in all the recesses of the cliff. This was another instance of my father's happy faculty of resourcefulness.
Certain circumstances about this time compelled my father almost entirely to give up portrait painting and betake himself to another branch of the fine arts. The earnest and lively interest which he took in the state of public affairs, and the necessity which then existed for reforming the glaring abuses of the State, led him to speak out his mind freely on the subject. Edinburgh was then under the reign of the Dundases; and scarcely anybody dared to mutter his objections to anything perpetrated by the "powers that be." The city was then a much smaller place than it is now. There was more gossip, and perhaps more espionage, among the better classes, who were few in number. At all events, my father's frank opinions on political subjects began to be known. He attended Fox dinners. He was intimate with men of known reforming views. All this was made the subject of general talk. Accordingly, my father received many hints from aristocratic and wealthy personages, that "if this went on any longer they would withdraw from him their employment." My father did not alter his course; it was right and honest. But he suffered nevertheless. His income from portrait painting fell off rapidly.
At length he devoted himself to landscape painting. It was a freer and more enjoyable life. Instead of painting the faces of those who were perhaps without character or attractiveness, he painted the fresh and ever-beautiful face of nature. The field of his employment in this respect was almost inexhaustible. His artistic talent in this delightful branch of art was in the highest sense congenial to his mind and feelings; and in course of time the results of his new field of occupation proved thoroughly satisfactory. In fact, men of the highest rank with justice entitled him the "Father of landscape painting in Scotland."
At the same time, when changing his branch of art, he opened a class in his own house forgiving practical instruction in the art of landscape painting. He removed his house and studio from St. James's Square to No. 47 York Place. There was at the upper part of this house a noble and commodious room. There he held his class. The house was his own, and was built after his own designs. A splendid prospect was seen from the upper windows; and especially from the Belvidere, which he had constructed on the summit of the roof. The view extended from Stirling in the west to the Bass Rock in the east. In fine summer evenings the sun was often seen setting behind Ben Lomond and the more conspicuous of the Perthshire mountains.
My father did not confine himself to landscape painting, or to the instruction of his classes. He was an all-round man. He had something of the Universal about him. He was a painter, an architect, and a mechanic. Above all, he possessed a powerful store of common sense. Of course, I am naturally a partial judge of my father's character; but this I may say, that during my experience of over seventy years I have never known a more incessantly industrious man. His hand and mind were always at work from morn till night. During the time that he was losing his business in portrait painting, he set to work and painted scenery for the theatres. The late David Roberts -- himself a scene painter of the highest character -- said that his style was founded upon that of Nasmyth.[note: David Roberts, R,A., in his Autobiography, gives the following recollections of Alexander Nasmyth :- "In 1819 I commenced my career as principal scene painter in the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. This theatre was immense in its size and appointments -- in magnitude exceeding Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The stock scenery had been painted by Alexander Nasmyth, and consisted of a series of pictures far surpassing anything of the kind I had ever seen. These included chambers, palaces, streets, landscapes, and forest scenery. One, I remember particularly, was the outside of a Norman castle, and another of a cottage charmingly painted, and of which I have a sketch. But the act scene, which was a view on the Clyde looking towards the Highland mountains with Dumbarton Castle in the middle distance, was such a combination of magnificent scenery, so wonderfully painted, that it excited universal admiration. These productions I studied incessantly; and on them my style, if I have any, was originally founded."]
Stanfield was another of his friends. On one occasion Stanfield showed him his sketch-book, observing that he wished to form a style of his own. "Young man," said Nasmyth, "there's but one style an artist should endeavour to attain, and that is the style of nature; the nearer you can get to that the better."
My father was greatly interested in the architectural beauty of his native city, and he was professionally consulted by the authorities about the laying out of the streets of the New Town. The subject occupied much of his time and thought, especially when resting from the mental fatigue arising from a long sitting at the easel. It was his regular practice to stroll about where the building work was in progress, or where new roads were being laid out, and carefully watch the proceedings. This was probably due to the taste which he had inherited from his forebears -- more especially from his father, who had begun the buildings of the New Town. My father took pleasure in modelling any improvement that occurred to him; and in discussing the subject with the architects and builders who were professionally engaged in the works. His admirable knack of modelling the contour of the natural surface of the ground, and applying it to the proposed new roads or new buildings, was striking and characteristic. His efforts in this direction were so thoroughly disinterested that those in office were all the more anxious to carry out his views. He sought for no reward; but his excellent advice was not unrecognised. In testimony of the regard which the Magistrates of Edinburgh had for his counsel and services, they presented him in 1815 with a sum of £200, together with a most complimentary letter acknowledging the value of his disinterested advice. It was addressed to him under cover, directed to "Alexander Nasmyth , Architect."
He was, indeed, not unworthy of the name. He was the architect of the Dean Bridge, which spans the deep valley of the Water of Leith, north-west of the New Town. Sir John Nesbit, the owner of the property north of the stream, employed my father to make a design for the extension of the city to his estate. The result was the construction of the Dean Bridge, and the roads approaching it from both sides. The Dean Estate was thus rendered as easy and convenient to reach as any of the level streets of Edinburgh. The construction of the bridge was superintended by the late James Jardine, C.E. Mr Telford was afterwards called upon to widen the bridge. He threw out parapets on each side, but they did not improve the original design.
From the Dean Bridge another of my father's architectural buildings may be seen, at St. Bernard's Well. It was constructed at the instance of his friend Lord Gardenstone. The design consists of a graceful circular temple, built over a spring of mineral water, which issues from the rock below. It was dedicated to Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The whole of the details are beautifully finished, and the basement of the design will be admired by every true artist. It is regarded as a great ornament, and is thoroughly in keeping with the beauty of the surrounding scenery.
Shortly after the death of Lord Nelson it was proposed to erect a monument to his memory on the Calton Hill. My father supplied a design, which was laid before the Monument Committee. It was so much approved that the required sum was rapidly subscribed. But as the estimated cost of this erection was found slightly to exceed the amount subscribed, a nominally cheaper design was privately adopted. It was literally a job. The vulgar, churn-like monument was thus thrust on the public and actually erected; and there it stands to this day, a piteous sight to beholders. It was eventually found greatly to exceed in cost the amount of the estimate for my father's design. I give a sketch of my father's memorial; and I am led to do this because it is erroneously alleged that he was the architect of the present inverted spy glass, called "Nelson's Monument"
Then, with respect to my father's powers as a mechanic. This was an inherited faculty, and I leave my readers to infer from the following pages whether I have not had my fair share of this inheritance. Besides his painting room, my father had a workroom fitted up with all sorts of mechanical tools. It was one of his greatest pleasures to occupy himself there as a relief from sitting at the easel, or while within doors from the inclemency of the weather. The walls and shelves of his workroom were crowded with a multitude of artistic and ingenious mechanical objects, nearly all of which were the production of his own hands. Many of them were associated with the most eventful incidents in his life. He only admitted his most intimate friends, or such as could understand and appreciate the variety of objects connected with art and mechanism, to his workroom. His natural taste for neatness and arrangement gave it a very orderly aspect, however crowded its walls and shelves might be. Everything was in its place, and there was a place for everything. It was in this workroom that I first began to handle mechanical tools. It was my primary technical school -- the very foreground of my life.
I may mention one or two of my father's mechanical efforts, or rather his inventions in applied science. One of the most important was the "bow-and-string bridge," as he first called it, to which he early directed his attention. He invented this important method of construction about the year 1794. The first bow-and-string bridge was erected in the island of St. Helena over a deep ravine.
Many considered, from its apparent slightness, that it was not fitted to sustain any considerable load. A remarkable and convincing proof was, however, given of its stability by the passage over it of a herd of wild oxen, that rushed across without the slightest damage to its structure. After so severe a test it was for many succeeding years employed as a most valuable addition to the accessibility of an important portion of the island. The bow-and-string bridge has since been largely employed in spanning wide spaces over which suburban and other railways pass, and in roofing over such stations as those at Birmingham, Charing Cross, and other Great Metropolitan centres, as well as in bow-and-string bridges over rivers. I give the fac-simile of his original drawings[note: The original drawings of these bow-and-string bridges, of various spans, are now deposited at the Gallery of the Museum of Naval Architecture at South Kensington, and are signed "Alexander Nasmyth 1796."]
for the purpose of showing our great railway engineers the originator of the graceful and economical method of spanning wide spaces, now practised in every part of the civilised world
Another of his inventions was the method of riveting by compression instead of by blows of the hammer. It originated in a slight circumstance. One wet, wintry Sunday morning he went into his workroom. There were some slight mechanical repairs to be performed upon a beautiful little stove of his own construction. To repair it, iron rivets were necessary to make it serviceable. But as the hammering of the hot rivets would annoy his neighbours by the unwelcome sound of the hammer, he solved the difficulty by using the jaws of his bench vice to squeeze in the hot rivets when put into their places. The stove was thus quickly repaired in the most perfect silence.
This was, perhaps, the first occasion on which a squeeze or compressive action was substituted for the percussive action of the hammer, in closing red-hot rivets, for combining together pieces of stout sheet or plate iron. This system of riveting was long afterwards patented by Smith of Deanston in combination with William Fairbairn of Manchester; and it was employed in riveting the plates used in the construction of the bridges over the River Conway and the Menai Straits.
It is also universally used in boiler and girder making, and in all other wrought-iron structures in which thorough sound riveting is absolutely essential; and by the employment of hydraulic power in a portable form a considerable portion of iron shipbuilding is effected by the silent squeeze system in place of hammers, much to the advantage of the soundness of the work. My father frequently, in aftertimes, practised this mode of riveting by compression in place of using the blow of a hammer; and in remembrance of the special circumstances under which he contrived this silent and most effective method of riveting, he named it "The Sunday Rivet."
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