When we think of landscape painting, the thought is often of the conservative, politically regressive, looking to escape the realities of modern life for an idealised past world of happy peasants free from the corruptions of today. Yet Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) was a man of the Enlightenment, a political radical, a great believer in science and technology, a reformer, even a utopian; his son was a talented engineer who invented the steam hammer. He is generally reckoned the first great Scottish landscape painter, but he was also the first great Scottish painter of the city and of urban development.
View of the City of Edinburgh (c. 1822) functions as a mainstream landscape painting. Viewing the city from the west, it contains the three chief elements of Scottish landscape: hill or mountain, water, and castle or ruin. It lies in the pictureque idiom of 19th century British landscape painting, with the low vantage point, tree, and scenic little temple on the left. Like many landscape works of the time, it harks back to Rousseau’s ideas about the natural state of humanity in nature. But it also has another source. This is an image of Edinburgh in the distance, but it draws on the 19th century rediscovery of Athens and Greek culture. It proclaims that Edinburgh is the Athens of the north, a place of culture, of philosophy, and maybe even democracy.
Classical Roman architecture and art had been popular since the Renaissance, and was an important influence on Scottish architecture from the 16th century, with the neo-classicism of the 18th perhaps its highpoint. But in the early 19th century, the changing political situation in the Ottoman empire and Greek independence made it possible for western artists and architectural historians to visit Athens. An image became rapidly established of Athens as a city on a hill surrounded by fields; for instance Richard Temple’s 1810 picture. This is the obvious model for Nasmyth’s painting here, and means that this is only superficially a depiction of a place but fundamentally a depiction of an idea.
Alexander Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh on 9 September 1758. He trained in his city of birth as a decorative painter, and under the Edinburgh-born history painter Alexander Runciman. Then he went to London, still a teenager, where he worked for Allan Ramsay in London 1774–8, initially himself working as a portraitist. Certainly we can see the influence of Ramsay, who was perhaps the greatest portrait painter of the Scottish Enlightenment, even though Nasmyth art went in a different direction. It wasn’t a totally new idea: he had Dutch and English models, as well as drawing on Ramsay’s ideas about light and perception, about capturing the reality of a person in a room and the light surrounding him (Ramsay prefiguring the explosion of photography in Scotland in the 1840s).
But portrait painting was where the money was, with the prospect of commissions with wealthy sitters, and he set up in Edinburgh as a portraitist in 1778. Throughout his life he mainly worked in Edinburgh despite the changing focus of his art, but he did travel. He visited Italy 1782–4, funded by inventor Patrick Miller (1731–1815) who designed ships including a warship called Experiment of Leith and multi-hulled pleasure boats; this work later led to William Symington’s Charlotte Dundas (1803), the first practical steamship.
In 1822 he published set of 16 views of locations of Walter Scott novels: this perhaps helped stir people’s desire for landscapes as their imagination was drawn from Scott’s enormously popular historical and adventure stories into the countryside that they inhabited. Nasmyth was also a stage designer, adviser on landscape and architecture, and a teacher. He was at the midst of Scottish culture in the first half of the 19th century. He taught painting, including to writer and polymath Mary Somerville, and drawing to John Sakeouse. He taught art to David Wilkie, David Roberts (known for his Egyptian scenes), the English marine painter Clarkson Stanfield and landscapist John Thomson of Duddingston, and to John Ruskin’s father John James Ruskin.
He died at his home 47 York Place, Edinburgh, on 10 April 1840, and is buried in St Cuthbert’s churchyard. But as well as creating in large measure the traditions of Scottish landscape painting, he produced another generation of great Scots. His children included landscape painter Patrick Nasmith (1787-1831); James Nasmyth (1808-1890) developed steam carriages and invented the steam hammer (1839) and other machine tools. Nasmyth himself played an important role in the development of the steam ship, experimenting with steam propulsion and being closely involved in Patrick Miller’s work. Nasmyth’s art shows Scotland opening up via new technology to a new public, a leisured middle class, who would not coincidentally also buy his paintings.
We can get an idea of his view of the world by looking at his depictions of architect Robert Adam’s Culzean Castle. Nasmyth takes liberties with the reality of the castle’s location. He exaggerates its precarious position on the cliff, which in real life is nowhere near that high (even if Adam or his patron had work done chiselling the rockface to increase its steepness). Certainly this wildness is part of Nasmyth’s aesthetic; you can see also his picture of Tantallon Castle.
But there is something more general: the idea of movement. Adam wrote: “Movement is meant to express, the rise and fall, the advance and recess, with other diversity of form, in the different parts of the building, so as to add greatly to the picturesque of the composition. For the rising and falling, advancing and receding, with the convexity and concavity, and other forms of the great parts, have the same effect in architecture, that hill and dale, fore-ground and distance, swelling and sinking have in landscape: that is, they serve to produce an agreeable and diversified contour, that groups and contrasts like a picture and creates a variety of light and shade, which gives great spirit, beauty and effect to the composition.”
This is central to much 19th century landscape, the idea of a moment caught in motion, the fleeting, the picturesque, an impressionistic quality which was distinctively Scottish and empiricist. In architecture it was applied by Adam using complex arrangements of 3 dimensional shapes that shifted in their outlines as you moved around. In Nasmyth there is often the sense of something glimpsed while travelling, of walkers stopping in the woods to admire an agreeable perspective before moving on. Juxtaposition between foreground and background is used for poetic purposes, for pictorial interest. Even the classic view of Athens he draws on is based on the idea of weary travellers coming over a hill and glimpsing at last their destination before them.
Sometimes though what we see in Nasmyth is not a journey through space but through time. In his paintings of Edinburgh we see the city come into being, an idealised modern city of learning and culture, but also a practical place of labour. A fine example of his skill at capturing both atmosphere and architecture is Princes Street with the Commencement of the Building of the Royal Institution, 1825. Edinburgh from the Calton Hill (1820) is a more conventionally picturesque view of the city, though its unusually rugged rocks give the sense of a city being quarried out of the ground and brought into being, but its detailed and expansive depiction of the city’s buildings also evokes the new popular entertainment of the panorama.
All this makes Nasmyth perhaps the first great painter of the city, as well as first great Scottish landscape painter. Relationship between nature and man. While many artists of the 19th century – including John Ruskin, whose father he taught – would attack the development of modern science and industry, Nasmyth stood at its heart. Thus he must be counted one of the few artists who not only shows the coming into being of a new world, but who helped create this new world.
Alexander Nasmyth, View of the City of Edinburgh, c. 1822, Oil on canvas, 142 x 210 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.