In 1878, 47 years after the death of Patrick Nasmyth, a minor painter and truffler of artistic anecdotes named Richard Langley published a collection of lives of painters. Among the personalities gathered in Farewell to Life: Lyrical Reminiscences of British Peers in Artwas Nasmyth: “now a magical name for all refined and true lovers of art” and a landscape artist who had not “been surpassed (if equaled) hitherto by all who followed him”.
Langley got much of his information from one of Nasmyth’s oldest friends and most dedicated collector, William Harrison. But that was not the only reason why he raved about “the beautiful finish, the happy sketch, the flowing pellucid light, the exquisite harmony and the truth of nature which his genius conveyed in his works”. Nasmyth (1787-1831) may have been underestimated during his lifetime, but posterity is catching up with this neglect.
Langley recounts that he frequented London’s auction houses and picture dealers and encountered many examples of fake Nasmyths and indeed encountered artists at work eager to brag about their ability to forge his images. By the mid-Victorian era, Nasmyth had become an artist worth pastiche. Today, however, Nasmyth has once again fallen below the horizon and when seen, if at all, is as a highly skilled artist, albeit of limited scope, merely one of a slice of professional landscapers. who served the Georgian art market without innovation. or a particular distinctive character.
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Indeed, Nasmyth was not the most distinguished member of his own family. His father was Alexander Nasmyth, a prominent Scottish landscape painter, portrait painter, teacher and friend of Robert Burns, while his brother James invented the steam hammer – a key tool in Victorian heavy industry – and was the first astronomer to observe solar flares. For good measure, six of Patrick’s sisters went on to become big-name entertainers.
Patrick – although he sometimes appears in documents as Peter – was born in Edinburgh and studied painting with his father, who was, by some accounts, a strict judge of the boy’s nature drawings. It was during a drawing outing with his father that Patrick seriously injured his hand in an accident: his response was simply to learn to draw with his left hand. The same dedication was displayed in his determination to be a landscaper in inclement Scotland. Rather than confining himself to the studio to work from sketches, he designed a small traveling tent that he took to the countryside, allowing him to work from nature in all weathers, despite the ridicule of his peers. Around the age of 17, he became deaf, supposedly because he slept on a damp mattress.
Nevertheless, Nasmyth’s paintings began to attract attention and in 1807 he moved to London. There he came across the work of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters, particularly Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael, and began to imitate their style of depicting indescribable corners of the landscape with intense fidelity and observation. He followed the Dutch way so closely that, although Scottish, he became known as the “English Hobbema”.
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Perhaps he learned too well from the Dutch. Watson’s Art Diary of 1867 recounts how Nasmyth was employed by a picture dealer to “sharpen the foliage and add some figures after Ruisdael” to a painting by the petty landscape artist Cornelis Decker, and then give it Ruisdael’s signature. The altered image sold for 480 guineas and Nasmyth took home 11 guineas for his part in the sharp drive. He would not have been able to complain later when his own works were forged, although he rightfully gave a landscape background to a painting of a bull and a frog by the young Edwin Landseer.
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Patrick’s brother James recalled how his brother’s true loyalty was to the still rural surroundings of Lambeth and Dulwich, which “abounded with the loveliest and most suitable subjects for his pencil”. He favors these “rural ‘pieces’”, with their “tangled hedges and neglected fences, overgrown with clinging vegetation”, to more grandiose panoramas. In sketching such scenes “he was in his glory.” Although Nasmyth produced many images with distant views of London, Edinburgh or Bristol, the majority of his work shows snippets of unattractive countryside: “As neglected as they may have been by the farmer, they have always been treats for Patrick”.
This painting, Penshurst Square, Kent (c. 1824-1830), now at the Yale Center for British Art, shows him at his best. The great house in the distance was the birthplace of Philip Sidney, the poet and courtier of Elizabeth I whose pastoral romance The Arcadia (1598) would have been based on its gardens and its park. James Nasmyth would later retire to the village, where he would name his home “Hammerfield” and make detailed observations of the moon. The house and the village, however, are of secondary interest to Patrick. It focuses on the details of the upper Wealden way down to the settlement.
Nasmyth was particularly adept at painting the sky and this pearlescent version has a soft light that bathes the landscape in an Italian glow, illuminating the detail of tree roots and pitted ground in the foreground, with the small group of rustics giving a touch of drama. human attenuation and animal interest. In his biographical sketch, Langley commented on the “damp coolness” that Nasmyth was able to evoke and no one equaled “by drawing in pencil the old ornate oak or elm trunks.” These lines, the fruit of innumerable sketching journeys, give the scene its verisimilitude: here is a real view, half-topographical, half-study of nature.
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Although Nasmyth was “devoid of patronage” for much of his career, he was proud of his abilities. Once scolded for being a “fussy painter”, he retorted, “Hey, you say so? I’ll let you see whether or not I’m just a fussy painter” and proceeded to paint an eight-foot landscape out of six in retaliation. Some mentions of Nasmyth describe him as “a stupid or half-witted being,” but more likely it was his deafness and what Langley called, “A soul too noble to push his worldly way by acting in a manner approaching subservience to those in a position to have encouraged and patronized him”. He was also plagued by reports of late drunkenness, so severe that he could not begin work “without first take a knocking glass”, then work with a stiffener next to his easel and spill “pints of rum”.
Anyway, it was not the alcohol that brought him down at 44 but the painting itself. On one of his drawing excursions, he lay too long on wet ground near the Thames and developed pneumonia-like symptoms from which he never recovered. On his deathbed, he asked for the curtains to be drawn to see the setting sun: “How glorious! were his last words. Nasmyth’s fellow Scottish artists in London paid for his tombstone, which praised his “modest and unassuming” character and “his pencil productions” which were “tasteful and lively”.
James Nasmyth’s memories of his brother were less bound by convention. He remembered how much pleasure Patrick’s career had brought to their father, and fondly remembered a gentle soul who, though deceived by the merchants, loved a mysterious wire and his violin. Above all, James remembered his brother’s delight in “nature’s carefree grace” and, touchingly, how he whistled as he roamed the countryside in search of “treats” to paint.