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 painters’ lives. Among the figures gathered in Farewell to Life: Lyrical Reminiscences of British Peers in Art, was Nasmyth: “now a magical name to all refined and true lovers of art” and a landscapist who had not “been out-rivalled (if equalled) up to the present time by any who have followed him”.
Langley drew much of his information from one of Nasmyth’s oldest friends and staunchest collectors, William Harrison. But this was not reason alone that he went into raptures about “the beautiful finish, the felicitous pencilling, the flowing pellucid light, the exquisite harmony and truth to nature his genius conveyed into his works”. Nasmyth (1787-1831) may have been under-appreciated during his lifetime but posterity was making up for the neglect.
Langley tells of frequenting London’s salerooms and picture dealers and coming across numerous examples of faux Nasmyths and indeed of meeting jobbing artists keen to boast of their ability to forge his pictures. By the mid-Victorian age, Nasmyth had become an artist worth pastiching. Today, however, Nasmyth has once again dropped below the horizon and when he is seen, if at all, it is as a highly skilled artist albeit of limited scope, merely one of a tranche of professional landscapists who serviced the Georgian art market without innovation or particular distinctiveness.
Indeed, Nasmyth was not the most distinguished member of his own family. His father was Alexander Nasmyth, an eminent Scottish landscapist, portraitist, teacher and friend of Robert Burns, while his brother James both 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 became artists of note.
Patrick – although he sometimes appears in documents as Peter – was born in Edinburgh and studied painting under his father, who was by some accounts a strict judge of the boy’s nature drawings. It was while on a sketching outing with his father that Patrick somehow badly injured his hand in an accident: his response was simply to learn to draw left-handed. The same dedication was displayed in his determination to be a landscapist in inclement Scotland. Rather than confine himself to the studio to work from sketches, he designed a small travelling tent which he would take into the countryside, allowing him to work from nature in all weathers, despite the ridicule of his peers. Sometime around the age of 17 he became deaf, supposedly as a result of sleeping on a damp mattress.
Nevertheless, Nasmyth’s paintings started to attract attention and in 1807 he moved to London. There he came across the work of the 17th-century Dutch landscapists, in particular Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael, and began to imitate their style of depicting nondescript corners of the landscape with intense fidelity and observation. So closely did he follow the Dutch manner that, despite being Scottish, he became known as the “English Hobbema”.
Perhaps he learned from the Netherlanders a touch too well. Watson’s Art Journal of 1867 recounts how Nasmyth was employed by a picture dealer to “sharpen up the foliage, and add some figures after Ruisdael” to a painting by the minor landscapist Cornelis Decker and then give it Ruisdael’s signature. The altered picture sold for 480 guineas and Nasmyth took home 11 guineas for his part in the sharp practice. He would have been in no position to complain later when his own works were forged, although he did legitimately once give a landscape background to a painting of a bull and a frog by the young Edwin Landseer.
[See also: Anna Boberg’s timeless Arctic landscapes]
Patrick’s brother James recalled how his brother’s real loyalty was to the still-rural environs of Lambeth and Dulwich, which “abounded with the most charming and appropriate subjects for his pencil”. He favoured these “rural ‘bits’”, with their “tangled hedges and neglected fences, overrun with vegetation clinging to them”, over grander vistas. When sketching such scenes “he was in his glory”. Although Nasmyth produced numerous pictures with distant views of London, Edinburgh or Bristol, the majority of his work shows snippets of unprepossessing countryside: “However neglected these might be by the farmer, they were always tit-bits for Patrick.”
This painting, Penshurst Place, Kent (circa 1824-30), now in the Yale Centre for British Art, shows him at his best. The grand house in the distance was the birthplace of Philip Sidney, the poet and courtier to Elizabeth I whose pastoral romance The Arcadia (1598) was said to be based on its gardens and parkland. James Nasmyth would later retire to the village, where he named his home “Hammerfield” and made detailed observations of the moon. The house and village, however, are of secondary interest to Patrick. His focus is on the details of the high-sided Wealden lane that drops down towards the settlement.
Nasmyth was particularly adept at painting the sky and this pearlescent version has a soft light that bathes the landscape in an Italianate glow, illuminating the details of tree roots and pitted soil in the foreground, with the little group of rustics giving a touch of alleviating human and animal interest. In his biographical sketch, Langley commented on the “moist freshness” Nasmyth was able to evoke and that no one equalled him “in pencilling the old rutted trunks of oak or elm”. Just such traits, the fruits of innumerable sketching trips, give the scene its verisimilitude: here is a real view, part topographical and part nature study.
Although Nasmyth was “destitute of patronage” for much of his career he was proud of his abilities. When once chided with being a “niggling painter” he shot back: “Eh, say you so? I’ll let you see whether or not I’m but a niggling painter” and proceeded to paint a landscape eight feet by six by way of riposte. Some mentions of Nasmyth describe him as “a silly or half-witted being” but this was more likely his deafness and what Langley called: “A soul too noble to push its worldly way by acting in a manner approaching to servility towards those in a position to have encouraged and patronised him”. He was dogged too by reports of late-life drunkenness, so severe that he couldn’t start work “without first partaking of a bumping glass” and then working with a stiffener beside his easel and knocking back “pints of rum”.
Whatever the truth, it wasn’t drink that felled him at the age of 44 but painting itself. On one of his drawing excursions he stood too long on wet ground near the River Thames and developed pneumonia-like symptoms from which he never recovered. On his deathbed he asked for the curtains to be drawn back so he could see the setting sun: “How glorious it is!” were his last words. Nasmyth’s fellow Scottish artists in London paid for his gravestone, which lauded his “modest and unassuming” character and “the productions of his pencil” that were “tasteful and vivid”.
James Nasmyth’s recollections of his brother were less bound by convention. He recalled how much pleasure Patrick’s career had given their father and remembered with delight a gentle soul who, although taken advantage of by dealers, loved a mystery yarn and his violin. Above all, James recollected his brother’s pleasure in “the careless grace of nature” and, touchingly, how he would whistle as he roamed the countryside looking for “tit-bits” to paint.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World