This pair of Edinburgh scenes date to 1788 when Alexander Nasmyth is recorded as spending much time, and deriving much pleasure from, walking around his native city, often accompanied by his friend Robert Burns. His famous portrait of Burns (National Galleries of Scotland) was painted the previous year and was also executed on a small scale typical of Nasmyth’s early work. A 1788 Edinburgh directory describes his profession as ‘portrait and landscape painter’ but by the end of the decade Henry Raeburn’s near-monopolisation of Edinburgh portraiture compelled Nasmyth to concentrate on landscapes. This proved an astute decision: he would go on to become known as ‘the founder of the Scottish landscape tradition.’
This fascinating pair of compositions capture the artist at a formative period in his career when his distinctive style was being cultivated. A View Near Edinburgh portrays figures crossing a bridge near a smart cottage, with an imposing Edinburgh Castle just visible through the trees behind; its companion piece portrays a peasant family by a roadside in front of a dilapidated cottage. It is possible the pair were conceived to convey a moralising message; equally, they may have been intended as charming conversation pieces evoking the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of Edinburgh society. The close attention Nasmyth paid to Northern Old Masters is evident, particularly in the restrained and earthy palette and the interest in portraying scenes of day-to-day life with intense detail. Nasmyth’s son and biographer James recorded that his father admired Hobbema, Wynants and Ruysdael in particular, and the British Museum holds a collection of Nasmyth etchings that demonstrate his awareness of early Northern artists including Nicholaes Berchem (one such etching dates to 1771, when Nasmyth was only thirteen).
By the 1800s his skill as a landscape painter was such that he was confident working on an ambitious scale, yet due to the numerous demands on his time relatively few pictures survive from this period. Between 1790 and 1810 he was remarkably industrious: in addition to supporting his large young family, he was setting up an art school where he taught classes and was also working on an ever-expanding portfolio of theatrical, engineering and landscape design projects. Nasmyth came from a line of architect-builders, and as a youth had been trained to take over the family business by his father but opted to pursue painting instead. It was not until later in life that he began to take on architectural and landscape-design commissions, embodying the Italian ideal of the architetto-pittore.
James Nasmyth wrote: ‘My father was much employed in assisting the noblemen and landed gentry 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 designed alterations of the old buildings so as to preserve their romantic features, and at the same time to fit them for all the requirements of modern domestic life.’ (ed. S. Smiles James Nasmyth, Engineer: An Autobiography, London, 1883, pp.36-37)
Nasmyth often presented his clients with artworks which illustrated his proposed improvements to their estates, and it is possible that it was in this architetto-pittore capacity that Nasmyth painted Dalhousie Castle in Cockpen, Midlothian. (J. C. Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening, London, 1822, p.1250, no.2218) The sweeping landscape incorporates views of the thirteenth-century redstone castle and its strategic vantage point over the River Esk, all set against rolling hills stretching into the distance. The pleasures of the grounds are demonstrated by several figural vignettes: hunters and their dogs rest in the foreground; a pair fish by the Esk; animals graze throughout. Particular attention is drawn to the dramatic views enjoyed on the approach to Dalhousie, with various figures accompanied by dogs walking up the gently curving path, and a waiting horse and carriage outside the Castle.
Dalhousie Castle affords the viewer an interesting insight into Nasmyth’s practice during a period when he produced few paintings, and is of exceptionally fine quality. It possesses all the hallmarks of the artist’s hand, including the distinctive ‘Nasmyth-style’ craggy trees, meticulous detail, a soft, golden light, and the use of dark framing devices around the edges of the picture to enhance its sense of depth and theatricality. The result is a highly evocative bucolic vision realised on a monumental scale.
NICK CURNOW | HEAD OF DEPARTMENT
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ALICE STRANG | SENIOR SPECIALIST
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