Alexander Nasmyth (Edinburgh 1758 - Edinburgh 1840)
View of a Lochside Castle
oil on canvas laid on board
46 x 63.5 cm (18 x 25 in)
Sotheby's, 12 April 1983, lot 214.
J.C.B. Cooksey, Alexander Nasmyth H.R.S.A., 1785 [sic] -1840. A Man of the Scottish Renaissance (Whittingehame House, Scotland, 1991), reproduced p.110.
In this wonderfully composed scene, the viewer’s eye moves over a stunning Scottish landscape. In the foreground a drover watches over a few cattle, whilst on the right-hand side a figure walks a dog through the woods. These figures are on top of a tree-lined hill, and the two columns, visible just beyond the cattle, suggest that this is part of a carefully landscaped park, belonging to the distant castle. In fact, due to his considerable skill as a landscape artist, Alexander Nasmyth was often consulted by his wealthy patrons on how to improve the appearance of their grand estates. The eye swoops down from the foreground hill, across the still water, to the castle which is perched imperiously over the loch. Such is the grandeur of the estate, that a second monumental building can be glimpsed through the trees on the left-hand side. In the distance the silhouette of a mountain-range can be seen, tinged pink in the dusk light. View of a Lochside Castle is a classic example of Nasmyth’s work, the Classical composition clearly derives from the tradition of Claude Lorrain’s (c.1600-1682) landscapes, with the clearly defined fore, middle, and backgrounds framed by the verticals of the trees on either side.
Nasmyth’s vistas of country houses, set in the beauty of the Scottish landscape, generally show the artist at his best. A comparable example is his View of Dreghorn Castle, Midlothian, with Figures and a Hay Cart in the Foreground, (Private Collection) the gardens of which were partly designed by Nasmyth, although the house has now been demolished.¹ Both works are composed in a similar manner, with the verdant foregrounds framed with trees, leading to a castle nestled in the landscape, before our eye reaches the mountainous background, rising up to meet the expanse of soft blue sky. Despite the carefully controlled compositions, it is clear in both works that Nasmyth revels in the rugged, untamed nature of the Scottish landscape, with its undulating, terrain and ancient woods.
Nasmyth was originally educated as an architect, but his artistic talent soon became evident at an early age and he became a painter of carriage panels, whilst also attending night classes. His ability caught the eye of the portraitist Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), who was visiting Scotland, and returned to London with the famous painter to continue his artistic education. At the age of twenty Nasmyth returned to Edinburgh and worked successfully as a portrait painter. Although these early works were very much in Ramsay’s style, bust-length portraits against plain backgrounds, Nasmyth soon started to place his subjects in landscapes, giving as much attention to the settings as to sitters.
One of his patrons helped Nasmyth to travel the continent, and the landscape of Italy had a lasting effect on his work. When he returned the Scottish landscape became increasingly a predominant theme in his work, and View of a Lochside Castle is a typical example, in that it contains an architectural feature seen across a body of water. He worked in the Claudian tradition of searching for the finest view, and then harmonising and idealising it. As the number of commissions to paint country houses increased, so he started to work more as an architectural and landscaping advisor for his patrons.
In addition to his work as an artist, Nasmyth worked as a teacher, engineer, and stage designer and helped beautify his native Edinburgh with designs such as the neo-Classical St. Bernard’s Well. His staunch and outspoken liberal politics often embarrassed his patrons, but such was his talent that he remained in demand throughout his life.
¹ See Loudon, J. C., An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London, 1822), p.80.