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James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III. AN ARTIST'S FAMILY.

Although Alexander Nasmyth had to a considerable extent lost his aristocratic connection as a portrait painter, yet many kind and generous friends gathered around him. During his sojourn in Italy, in 1783, he had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Sir James Hall of Dunglass, Haddingtonshire. The acquaintance afterwards ripened into a deeply-rooted friendship.

During the winter season Sir James resided with his family in his town house in George Street. He was passionately attached to the pursuit of art and science. He practised the art of painting in my father's room, and was greatly helped by him in the requisite manipulative skill. Sir James was at that time engaged in writing his well-known essay "On the Origin of Gothic Architecture," and in this my father was of important help to him. He executed the greater number of the illustrations to this beautiful work. The book when published had a considerable influence in restoring the taste of architects to a style which they had heretofore either neglected or degraded.

Besides his enthusiasm in art and architecture, Sir James devoted a great deal of time to the study of geology. The science was then in its infancy. Being an acute observer, Hall's attention was first attracted to the subject by the singular geological features of the sea-coast near his mansion at Dunglass. The neighbourhood of Edinburgh also excited his interest. The upheaval of the rocks by volcanic heat - as seen in the Castle Hill, the Calton Hill, and Arthur's Seat — formed in a great measure the foundation of the picturesque beauty of the city. Those were the days of the Wernerian and Huttonian controversy as to the origin of the changes on the surface of the earth. Sir James Hall was President of the Edinburgh Royal Society, and necessarily took an anxious interest in the discussion. He observed and experimented, and established the true volcanic nature of the composition and formation of the rocks and mountains which surround Edinburgh.

I have been led to speak of this subject, because when a boy I was often present at the discussions of these great principles. My father, Sir James Hall, Professors Mayfair and Leslie, took their accustomed walks round Edinburgh, and I clung eagerly to their words. Though unable to understand everything that was said, these walks had a great influence upon my education. Indeed, what education can compare with that of listening attentively to the conversation and interchange of thought of men of the highest intelligence? It is on such occasions that ideas, not mere words, take hold of the memory, and abide there until the close of life.

Besides mixing in the society of scientific men, my father enjoyed a friendly intercourse with the artists of his day. He was often able to give substantial help and assistance to young students; and he was most liberal in giving them valuable practical instruction, and in assisting them over the manipulative difficulties which lay in their way. He was especially assiduous when he saw them inspired by the true spirit of art, and full of application and industry, without which nothing can be accomplished. Amongst these young men were David Wilkie, Francis Grant, David Roberts, Clarkson Stansfield, William Allan, Andrew Geddes, "Grecian" Williams, Lizars the engraver, and the Rev. John Thomson of Duddingston.

Henry Raeburn was one of his most intimate friends and companions. He considered Raeburn's broad and masterly style of portrait painting as an era in Scottish art. Raeburn, with innate tact, discerned the character of his sitters, and he imported so much of their individuality into his portraits as to make them admirable likenesses in the highest sense. In connection with Raeburn, I may mention that when he was knighted by George IV. in 1822, my father, who was then at the head of his profession in Scotland, was appointed chairman at the dinner held to do honour to the great Scottish portrait painter.

Raeburn often joined my father in his afternoon walks round Edinburgh — a relaxation so very desirable after hours of close attention to artistic work. They took delight in the wonderful variety of picturesque scenery by which the city is surrounded. The walks about Arthur's Seat were the most enjoyable of all. When a boy I had often the pleasure of accompanying them, and of listening to their conversation. I thus picked up many an idea that served me well in after life. Indeed, I may say, after a long experience, that there is no class of men whose company I more delight in than that of artists. Their innate and highly-cultivated power of observation, not only as regards the ever-varying aspects of nature, but also as regards the quaint, droll, and humorous varieties of character, concur in rendering their conversation most delightful. I look back on these events as among the brightest points in my existence. I have been led to digress on this subject. Although more correctly belonging to my father's life, yet it is so amalgamated with my own that it almost forms part of it, and it is difficult for me to separate the one from the other.

And then there were the pleasant evenings at home. When the day's work was over, friends looked in to have a fireside crack — sometimes scientific men, sometimes artists, often both. They were all made welcome. There was no formality about their visits. Had they been formal, there would have been comparatively little pleasure. The visitor came in with his "Good e'en," and seated himself. The family went on with their work as before. The girls were usually busy with the needles, and others with pen and pencil. My father would go on with the artistic work he had in hand, for his industry was incessant. He would model a castle or a tree, or proceed with some proposed improvement of the streets or approaches of the rapidly-expanding city. Among the most agreeable visitors were Professor Leslie, James Jardine, C.E., and Dr. Brewster. Their conversation was specially interesting. They brought up the last new thing in science, in discovery, in history, or in campaigning, for the war was then raging throughout Europe.

The artists were a most welcome addition to the family group. Many a time did they set the table in a roar with their quaint and droll delineations of character. These unostentatious gatherings of friends about our fireside were a delightful social institution. The remembrance of them lights up my recollection of the happiest period of a generally happy life. Could I have been able to set forth the brightness and cheerfulness of these happy evenings at my father's house, I am fain to think that my description might have been well worth reading. But all the record of them that remains is a most cherished recollection of their genial tone and harmony, which makes me think that, although in these days of rapid transit over earth and ocean, and surrounded as we are with the results of applied scientific knowledge, we are not a bit more happy than when all the vaunted triumphs of science and so-called education were in embryo.

The supper usually followed, for my father would not allow his visitors to go away empty-mouthed. The supper did not amount to much. Rizard or Finnan haddies, or a dish of oysters, with a glass of Edinburgh ale, and a rummer of toddy, concluded these friendly evenings. The cry of "Caller Aou " was constantly heard in the streets below of an evening. When the letter ‘r’ was in the name of the month, the supply of oysters was abundant. The freshest oysters, of the most glorious quality, were to be had at 2s. 6d. the hundred! And what could be more refreshing food for my father's guests? These unostentatious and inexpensive gatherings of friends were a most delightful social institution among the best middle-class people of Edinburgh some sixty or seventy years ago. What they are now I cannot tell. But I fear they have disappeared in the more showy and costly tastes that have sprung up in the progress of what is called "modern society."

No part of my father's character was more admirable than his utter unselfishness. He denied himself many things, that he might give the more pleasure to his wife and children. He would scarcely take part in any enjoyment, unless they could have their fair share of it. In all this he was faithfully followed by my mother. The admirable example of well-sustained industry that was always before her, sustained her in her efforts for the good of her family. She was intelligently interested in all that related to her husband's business and interests, as well as in his recreative enjoyments. The household affairs were under her skilful guidance. She conducted them with economy, and yet with generous liberality, free from the least taint of ostentation or extravagance. The home fireside was the scene of cheerfulness. And most of our family have been blest with this sunny gift. Indeed, a merrier family circle I have never seen. There were twelve persons round the table to be provided for, besides two servants. This required, on my mother's part, a great deal of management, as every housekeeper will know. Yet everything was provided and paid for within the year's income.

The family result of my father and mother's happy marriage was four sons and seven daughters. Patrick, the eldest, was born in 1787. He was called after my father's dear and constant friend, Patrick Miller of Dalswinton. I will speak by of his artistic reputation. Then followed a long succession of daughters — Jane, the eldest, was born in 1778; Barbara in 1790; Margaret in 1791; Elizabeth in 1793; Anne in 1798; Charlotte in 1804. Then came a succession of three sons — Alexander, George, and James. There followed another daughter, Mary; but as she only lived for about eighteen months, I remained the youngest child of the family.

My sisters all possessed, in a greater or less degree, an innate love of art, and by their diligent application they acquired the practice of painting landscape in oils. My father's admirable system and method of teaching rendered them expert in making accurate sketches from nature, which, as will afterwards be seen, they turned to good account. My eldest sister, Jane, was in all respects a most estimable character, and a great help to my mother in the upbringing of the children. Jane was full of sound common sense; her judgment seemed to be beyond her years. Because of this the younger members of the family jokingly nicknamed her "Old Solid"! Even my father consulted her in every case of importance in reference to domestic and financial affairs. I had the great good fortune, when a child, to be placed under her special protection, and I have reason to be thankful for the affectionate care which she took of me during the first six years of my life.

Besides their early education in art, my mother was equally earnest in her desire to give her daughters a thorough practical knowledge in every department and detail of household management. When they had attained a suitable age they were in succession put in charge of all the household duties for two weeks at a time. The keys were given over to them, together with the household books, and at the end of their time their books were balanced to a farthing. They were then passed on to the next in succession. One of the most important branches of female education — the management of the domestic affairs of a family, the superintendence of the cooking so as to avoid waste of food, the regularity of the meals, and the general cleaning up of the rooms — was thus thoroughly attained in its best and most practical forms. And under the admirable superintendence of my mother everything in our family went on like clockwork.

My father's object was to render each and all of his children whether boys or girls independent on their arrival at mature years. Accordingly, he sedulously kept up the attention of his daughters to fine art. By this means he enabled them to assist in the maintenance of the family while at home, and afterwards to maintain themselves by the exercise of their own abilities and industry after they had left. To accomplish this object, as already described, he set on foot drawing classes, which were managed by his six daughters, superintended by himself.

Edinburgh was at that time the resort of many county families. The war which raged abroad prevented them going to the Continent. They therefore remained at home, and the Scotch families for the most part took up their residence in Edinburgh. There were many young ladies desiring to complete their accomplishments, and hence the establishment of my sisters' art class. It was held in the large painting-room in the upper part of the house. It soon became one of the most successful institutions in Edinburgh. When not engaged in drawing and oil painting, the young ladies were occupied in sketching from nature, under the superintendence of my sisters, in the outskirts of Edinburgh. This was one of the most delightful exercises in which they could be engaged; and it also formed the foundation for many friendships which only terminated with life.

My father increased the interest of the classes by giving little art lectures. They were familiar but practical. He never gave lectures as such, but rather demonstrations. It was only when a pupil encountered some technical difficulty, or was adopting some wrong method of proceeding, that he undertook to guide them by his words and practical illustrations. His object was to embue the minds of the pupils with high principles of art. He would take up their brushes and show by his dexterous and effective touches how to bring out, with marvellous ease, the right effects of the landscape. The other pupils would come and stand behind him, to see and hear his clear instructions carried into actual practice on the work before him. He often illustrated his little special lessons by his stores of instructive and interesting anecdotes, which no doubt helped to rivet his practice all the deeper into their minds. Thus the Nasmyth classes soon became the fashion. In many cases both mothers and daughters might be seen at work together in that delightful painting-room. I have occasionally met with some of them in after years, who referred to those pleasant hours as among the most delightful they had ever spent.

These classes were continued for many years. In the meantime my sisters' diligence and constant practice enabled them in course of time to exhibit their works in the fine art exhibitions of Edinburgh. Each had her own individuality of style and manner, by which their several works were easily distinguished from each other. Indeed, whoever works after Nature will have a style of their own. They all continued the practice of oil painting until an advanced age. The average duration of their lives was about seventy-eight.

There was one point which my father diligently impressed upon his pupils, and that was the felicity and the happiness attendant upon pencil drawing. He was a master of the pencil, and in his off-hand sketches communicated his ideas to others in a way that mere words could never have done. It was his Graphic Language. A few strokes of the pencil can convey ideas which quires of writing would fail to impart. This is one of the most valuable gifts which a man who has to do with practical subjects can possess. "The language of the pencil" is truly a universal one, especially in communicating ideas which have reference to material forms. And yet it is in a great measure neglected in our modern system of so-called education.

The language of the tongue is often used to disguise our thoughts, whereas the language of the pencil is clear and explicit. Who that possesses this language can fail to look back with pleasure on the course of a journey illustrated by pencil drawings? They bring back to you the landscapes you have seen, the old streets, the pointed gables, the entrances to the old churches, even the bits of tracery, with a vividness of association such as mere words could never convey. Thus, looking at an old sketch-book brings back to you the recollection of a tour, however varied, and you virtually make the journey over again with its picturesque and beautiful associations.

On many a fine summer's day did my sisters make a picnic excursion into the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. They were accompanied by their pupils, sketch-book and pencil in hand. As I have already said, there is no such scenery near any city that I know of. Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags, Duddingston Loch, the Braid Hills, Craigmillar Castle, Hawthornden, Roslin, Habbie's How, and the many valleys and rifts in the Pentlands, with Edinburgh and its Castle in the distance or the scenery by the seashore, all round the coast from Newhaven to Gullane and North Berwick Law.

The excursionists came home laden with sketches. I have still by me a multitude of these graphic records made by my sisters. Each sketch, however slight, strikes the keynote, as it were, to many happy recollections of the circumstances, and the persons who were present at the time they were made. I know not of any such effective stimulant to the recollection of past events as these graphic memoranda. Written words may be forgotten, but these slight pencil recollections imprint themselves on the mind with a force that can never be effaced. Everything that occurred at the time rises up as fresh in the memory as if hours and not years had passed since then. They bring to the mind's eye many dear ones who have passed away, and remind us that we too must follow them.

It is much to be regretted that this valuable art of graphic memoranda is not more generally practised. It is not merely a most valuable help to the memory, but it educates the eye and the hand, and enables us to cultivate the faculty of definite observation. This is one of the most valuable accomplishments that I know of, being the means of storing up ideas, and not mere words, in the mental recollection of both men and women.

Before I proceed to record the recollections of my own life, I wish to say something about my eldest brother Patrick, the well-known landscape painter. He was twenty-one years older than myself. My father was his best and almost his only instructor. At a very early age he manifested a decided taste for drawing and painting. His bent was landscape. This gave my father great pleasure, as it was his own favourite branch of art. The boy acquired great skill in sketching trees, clouds, plants, and foregrounds. He studied with wonderful assiduity and success. I possess many of his graphic memoranda, which show the care and industry with which he educated his eye and hand in rendering with truth and fidelity the intimate details of his art. The wild plants which he introduced into the foregrounds of his pictures were his favourite objects of study. But of all portions of landscape nature, the Sky was the one that most delighted him. He studied the form and character of clouds - the resting cloud, the driving cloud, and the rain cloud and the sky portions of his paintings were thus rendered so beautifully attractive.

He was so earnest in his devotion to the study of landscape that in some respects he neglected the ordinary routine of school education. He successfully accomplished the three R.'s, but after that his School was in the fields, in the face of nature. He was by no means a Romantic painter. His taste was essentially for Home subjects. In his landscapes he introduced picturesque farm-houses and cottages, with their rural surroundings; and his advancement and success were commensurate with his devotion to this fine branch of art. The perfect truth with which he represented English scenery, associated as it is with so many home-loving feelings, forms the special attractiveness of his works. This has caused them to be eagerly sought after, and purchased at high prices.

Patrick had a keen sense of humour, though in other respects he was simple and unpretending. He was a great reader of old-fashioned novels, which indeed in those days were the only works of the kind to be met with. The Arabian Nights, Robinson, Crusoe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and suchlike, were his favourites, and gave a healthy filip to his imagination. He had also a keen relish for music, and used to whistle melodies and overtures as he went along with his work. He acquired a fair skill in violin playing. While tired with sitting or standing he would take up his violin, play a few passages, and then go to work again.

Patrick removed to London in 1808, and exhibited at the Royal Academy in the following year. He made excursions to various parts of England, where he found subjects congenial to his ideas of rural beauty. The immediate, neighbourhood of London, however, abounded with the most charming and appropriate subjects for his pencil. These consisted of rural "bits" of the most picturesque but homely description decayed pollard trees and old moss-grown orchards, combined with cottages and farm-houses in the most paintable state of decay, with tangled hedges and neglected fences, overrun with vegetation clinging to them with all "the careless grace of nature." However neglected these might be by the farmer, they were always tit-bits for Patrick. When sketching such subjects he was in his glory, and he returned to his easel loaded with sketch-book treasures, which when painted form the gems of many a collection.

In some of these charming subjects glimpses of the distant capital may be observed, the dome of St. Paul's towering over all; but they are introduced with such skill and correctness as in no way to interfere with the rural character of his subject. When he went farther afield — to Windsor Forest, Hampshire, the New Forest, or the Isle of Wight he was equally diligent with his pencil, and came home laden with sketches of the old monarchs of the forest. When in a state of partial decay his skilful touch brought them to life again, laden with branches and lichen, with leaves and twigs and bark, and with every feature that gives such a charm to these important elements in true English landscape scenery.

On my brother's first visit to London, accompanied by my father, he visited many collections where the old Dutch masters were to be seen, and he doubtless derived much advantage from his careful studies, more particularly from the works of Hobbema, Ruysdael, and Wynants. These came home to him as representations of Nature as she is. They were more free from the traditional modes of representing her. The works of Claude Lorraine and Richard Wilson were also the objects of his admiration, though the influence of the time for classicality of treatment to a certain extent vitiated these noble works. When a glorious sunset was observed, the usual expression among the lovers of art was, "What a magnificent Claudish effect!" thus setting up the result of man's feeble attempt at representation as the standard of comparison, in place of the far grander original!

My brother carefully studied Nature herself. His works, following those of my father, led back the public taste to a more healthy and true condition, and by the aid of a noble army of modern British landscape painters, this department of art has been elevated to a very high standard of truth and excellence.

I find some letters from Patrick to my father, after his settlement as an artist in London. My father seems to have supplied him with money during the early part of his career, and afterwards until he had received the amount of his commissions for pictures. In one of his letters he says: "That was an unlucky business, the loss of that order which you were so good as send me on my account." It turned out that the order had dropt out of the letter enclosing it, and was not recovered. In fact, Patrick was very careless about all money transactions.

In 1814 he made the acquaintance of Mr. Barnes, and accompanied him to Bure Cottage, Ringwood, near Southampton, where he remained for some time. He went into the New Forest, and brought home "lots of sketches." In 1815 be exhibited his works at the Royal Academy. He writes to his father that "the prices of my pictures in the Gallery are two at fourteen guineas each (small views in Hampshire), one at twelve guineas, and two at fourteen guineas. They are all sold but one." These pictures would now fetch in the open market from two to three hundred guineas each. But in those days good work was little known, and landscapes especially were very little sought after.

Patrick Nasmyth's admirable rendering of the finer portions of landscape nature attracted the attention of collectors, and he received many commissions from them at very low prices. There was at that time a wretched system of delaying the payment for pictures painted on commission, as well as considerable loss of time by the constant applications made for the settlement of the balance. My brother was accordingly under the necessity of painting his pictures for the Dealers, who gave him at once the price which he required for his works. The influence of this system was not always satisfactory, The Middlemen or Dealers, who stood between the artist and the final possessor of the works, were not generous. They higgled about prices, and the sums which they gave were almost infinitesimal compared with the value of Patrick Nasmyth's pictures at the present time.

The Dealers were frequent visitors at his little painting-room in his lodgings. They took undue advantage of my brother's simplicity and innate modesty in regard to the commercial value of his works. When he had sketched in a beautiful subject, and when it was clear that in its highest state of development it must prove a fine work, the Dealer would pile up before him a row of guineas, or sovereigns, and say, "Now, Peter, that picture's to be mine!" The real presence of cash proved too much for him. He never was a practical man. He agreed to the proposal, and thus he parted with his pictures for much less than they were worth. He was often remonstrated with by his brother artists for letting them slip out of his hands in that way works that he would not surrender until he had completed them, and brought them up to the highest point of his fastidious taste and standard of excellence.

Among his dearest friends were David Roberts and Clarkson Stansfield. He usually replied to their friendly remonstrances by laughingly pointing to his bursting portfolios of sketches, and saying, "There's lots of money in these banks to draw from." He thus warded off their earnest and often-repeated friendly remonstrances. Being a single man, and his habits and style of living of the most simple kind, he had very little regard for money except as it ministered to his immediate necessities. His evenings were generally spent at a club of brother artists "over the water;" and in their company he enjoyed many a pleasant hour. His days were spent at his easel. They were occasionally varied by long walks into the country near London, for the purpose of refilling his sketch-book.

It was on one of such occasions when he was sketching the details of some picturesque pollard old willows up the Thames, and standing all the time in wet ground that he caught a severe cold which confined him to the house. He rapidly became worse. Two of his sisters, who happened to be in London at the time, nursed him with devoted attention. But it was too late. The disease had taken fatal hold of him. On the evening of the 17th August 1831, there had been a violent thunderstorm. At length the peals of thunder ceased, the rain passed away, and the clouds dispersed. The setting sun burst forth in a golden glow. The patient turned round on his couch and asked that the curtains might be drawn. It was done. A blaze of sunset lit up his weary and worn-out face. "How glorious it is!" he said. Then, as the glow vanished he fell into a deep and tranquil sleep, from which he never awoke. Such was the peaceful end of my brother Patrick, at the comparatively early age of forty-four years.

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