We recently donated a series of sketchbooks by James Nasmyth to the Scottish National Gallery. The material offers a fascinating insight into the life and work of the Scottish artist and engineer James Nasmyth. Nasmyth was the son of the Edinburgh landscape and portrait painter Alexander Nasmyth. He was taught to draw by his father and rapidly gained great proficiency. From an early age he had a strong interest in engineering and at the age of seventeen constructed a steam engine to grind the colours for his father. In 1821 Nasmyth became a student at the Edinburgh School of Arts and financed himself by making illustrations for the lectures at the Edinburgh Mechanics Institute. Having completed his studies he moved to London in 1829 to work for the innovative engineer Henry Maudslay and in 1834, moved to Manchester to set up his own engineering business making steam engines and machine tools. This firm was later to become the famous Bridgewater Foundry. Nasmyth’s most important invention was the Steam Hammer, which was first developed in 1839 to help make intricate parts for Brunel’s Great Britain.
Nasmyth had long been interested in astronomy and in 1842 embarked on a long cherished scheme of making a systematic and minute study of the surface of the moon. He described his working methods in his biography:
'I made careful drawings with black and white chalk on large sheets of grey-tinted paper, of such selected portions of the Moon as embodied the most characteristic and instructive features of her wonderful surface. I was thus enabled to graphically represent the details with due fidelity as to form, as well as regard to the striking effect of the original in its masses of light and shade. I thus educated my eye for the special object by systematic and careful observation, and at the same time practised my hand in no less careful delineation of all that was so distinctly presented to me by the telescope – at the side of which my sheet of paper was handily fixed.'
The series of drawings of the moon’s surface, together with a map six feet in diameter of the entire visible surface were first exhibited in a lecture he gave at the meeting of the British Association at Edinburgh in 1850. In the following year, at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace he not only exhibited his Steam Hammer but also the drawings. Nasmyth was awarded a Council Medal for the great Steam Hammer, although in his biography, he recorded that he was more delighted with the Prize Medal he received for the drawings, which he described as his ‘special hobby’. He went on to record the general acclaim for the drawings. They attracted considerable attention, not only because of their novelty, but because the accurate and artistic style of their execution.
Amongst topographical studies and landscape sketches, there is an important, small chalk and watercolour drawing of the surface of the moon on distinctive lilac paper. There is also a drawing of Burr Castle pointing out the room in which Nasmyth installed his telescope to make the observations of the moon. We have handled a number of Nasmyth’s finished drawings of the moon – including an example now in the Art Institute of Chicago – so we are delighted to be able to donate this material to the Scottish National Gallery.