2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of influential inventor and engineer James Watt, whose improvements to the steam engine helped drive the Industrial Revolution.
In this blog, we explore the significance of the Scot whose name has been adopted internationally to define a unit of power, and the extraordinary art that his work influenced.
Born in Greenock in 1736 and first employed at the University of Glasgow, Watt’s revolutionary improvements to steam engine technology were eventually realised in partnership with the wealthy Birmingham entrepreneur Matthew Boulton at his famous Soho works.
By 1819 Watt was already lionised as a national hero who had given unrivalled impetus to the development of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
The 200th anniversary of his death on 25 August 2019 is being commemorated with a year-long programme of events across Scotland and in Birmingham.
What’s happening in the Galleries?
At the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Watt features in the magnificent processional frieze in the Great Hall; and there are also important portraits including an 1818 marble bust by Sir Francis Chantrey, London’s leading society portrait sculptor during Watt’s lifetime and an 1806 painting by John Partridge. And on 27 August, Dr Frances Robertson of Glasgow School of Art will deliver a talk examining Watt’s cultural significance and relevance in the context of Glasgow and late eighteenth and early nineteenth century engineering.
At the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound the world’s largest and most spectacular Watt-themed painting – James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century by James Eckford Lauder (1811-1869) – has made a much-anticipated reappearance on the main floor and will be on display until 8 September. An irresistible opportunity for selfie-takers throughout the summer season!
By 1854, when Edinburgh-based Lauder completed his virtuoso piece of modern history painting, the literary and artistic cult of Watt had reached its zenith. Lauder portrays him as an intellectual colossus and visionary, contemplating in his mind’s eye a new era of economic and social progress which would be galvanized by his own inventions.
In the glass case on the right of the painting is a tea kettle, recalling his childhood observations of the condensation of steam in his aunt’s parlour. Above the kettle is the modified model Newcomen steam engine (Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow) with which he began his mature experiments.
For maximum dramatic effect the artist reworked several earlier pictorial traditions. Among these were seventeenth century Netherlandish depictions of alchemists in their laboratories and Joseph Wright of Derby’s theatrically illuminated visualisations of eighteenth century ‘natural philosophers’ or scientists.
Lauder is unlikely to have seen an original oil by Wright such as A Philosopher Shewing an Experiment on an Air Pump (1768, National Gallery, London). But reproductive engravings such as Valentine Green's 1769 mezzotint in the Scottish collection after this picture circulated internationally from the later 1760s.
And it was through the print trade that Lauder’s own ambitions to create a defining memorial to Watt were to be fulfilled. In 1860, after James Watt and the Steam Engine was purchased speculatively by a leading London print publisher, top quality engravings were published simultaneously in New York and London.
Due to open in 2021, the redevelopment of the Scottish National Gallery depends on extensive in-house research focussed on the Scottish national collection. New curatorial thinking about Lauder’s painting has already underpinned the 2019 Watt bicentenary display and will also be presented this year at the international Watt conference at the University of Birmingham (30 August-1 September).