James Nasmyth painted and sketched all his life. ‘Indeed drawing was my method of speaking’, he wrote. And as the 11th child of Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), several of whose works will be returning to the revitalised Portrait Gallery, this was not perhaps surprising. But it was not his only means of expression: at about the same time as he drew himself in this portrait, he was working on his autobiography, edited by Samuel Smiles and published three years later. This explores the engineering talent for which he is principally remembered (he gives his name to the mechanical engineering building at Heriot-Watt University) but is also a wonderfully vivid account of his life from childhood during Edinburgh’s golden age at the beginning of the 19th century into the high Victorian period of giant engineering endeavour – throughout all of which he was an enthusiastic, observant and, above all, inventive participant.
Both book and portrait are accounts of an amiable man who knew very well his own mind. (He met and became engaged to his wife in the course of part of one day when in transit between York and Sheffield.) By 1881, the date of the picture, we see a man who has already been retired from business for 25 years at his sprawling house in Kent (splendidly renamed Hammerfields in commemoration of his celebrated steam hammer) and who was now studying astronomy and photography. Two photographs in the collection aptly illustrate these enthusiasms: Back of Hand (his own) and Wrinkled Apple both suggest how the surface of the moon had formed.