James Nasmyth, Fairies, 1855


James Nasmyth, Fairies, 1855
James Nasmyth, Fairies

A recent donation of eight etchings by James Nasymth has highlighted the varied talents engineers possess: for Nasmyth was not only an inventive engineer but also an accomplished artist; some of his work is featured on Your Paintings and The Alchemist recently sold at Christies for over £10,000. As well as being an artist he also was a photographer (developing pioneering techniques for ‘photographing’ the moon) and an astronomer.

His father, Alexander Nasmyth, was a landscape and portrait painter in Edinburgh, where James was born in 1808. Alexander was a hobbyist mechanical engineer, with his own workshop, and encouraged his son’s interest in materials. A school friend’s father was an iron founder and James was soon spending his spare time in the foundry, learning how to work and turn wood, brass, iron and steel. From around 1820 he built his first steam engine. At the same time he was attending Edinburgh School of Arts (Heriot-Watt University).

In 1828 he made a complete steam carriage that ran a mile, carrying 8 passengers; he was now determined to become an engineer and resolved on gaining employment at Henry Maudslay’s workshop. As his father could not afford the apprenticeship fees, James decided to show Maudslay examples of his skills: he produced a complete working model of a high-pressure steam engine, creating the working drawings and constructing the components himself. The tactic worked and he was taken on, becoming a draughtsman two years later. He then set-up on his own, in an old cotton mill in Manchester (having first returned to Edinburgh to manufacture tools).

But my most favourite pursuit, after my daily exertions at the Foundry, was Astronomy. There were frequently clear nights when the glorious objects in the Heavens were seen in most attractive beauty and brilliancy.

Following an accident (the combination of massive castings and a wooden floor was far from ideal!) he moved to Patricroft, Lancashire. In August 1836 he and partner Holbrook Gaskell opened the Bridgewater Foundry:  trading as Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company. Nasmyth then started an independent and successful career, perhaps the pinnacle of which was inventing the steam hammer: in turn this led to other inventions such as the pile-driving machine. He retired in 1856 and concentrated on art and astronomy.

He did not stop inventing and built his own 20-inch reflecting telescope, in the process inventing the Nasmyth focus. Using this he made detailed observations of the Moon which he used to produce lunar ‘photographs’. Photography was not yet advanced enough to take actual pictures of the Moon so Nasmyth built plaster models based on his observations and then photographed the models. He co-wrote The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite where these photographs were published (good images and more information is available here). The model is viewable at the Science Museum, in their ‘Making the Modern World’ gallery.

His artistic output was varied, from fantastical fairies to landscapes. In the archive we have many drawings by his company, many of which are signed by him personally; these often have an element of humour or humanity for example, in one showing steam hammer operation the hammer is crushing a wine bottle. Many of these are viewable on our Picture Gallery. The recent addition of the etchings to these mechanical drawings helps to illustrate a different side of Nasmyth’s  personality and skills. Some of these etchings were reproduced in his autobiography, alongside other works and photographs.

Safety ladle, drawn and produced by Nasmyth
Safety ladle, drawn and produced by Nasmyth

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