Art lovers can come face-to-face with inventor James Watt through the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

You can view online images from the NGS collection here.

We asked Helen Smailes, Senior Curator of British Art (Paintings and Sculpture), at NGS to pick out some of her highlights.

The bust

She started by talking about a marble bust of Watt by Sir Francis Chantrey, which is on display in the entrance hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh’s Queen Street.

This bust dates from around 1815 and was used by Chantrey as the basis of much larger statues. (Several of these were made – with one currently on loan to the National Museum of Scotland in the city’s Chambers Street.)

Listen to the interview with Helen here.

The bust of James Watt in the entrance hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh's Queen Street.

The bust of James Watt in the entrance hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh’s Queen Street. This piece inspired the larger marble statue (inset) which currently dominates the entrance hall of the National Museum
of Scotland in Chambers Street.

Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey (1781-1841)
James Watt, 1736 – 1819. Engineer, inventor of the steam engine, about 1815
Sculpture (bust), marble, height: 52.3 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1932

 


The painting

Helen went on to discuss a half-length oil portrait by John Partridge, inspired by an original painting by Sir William Beechey.

(The Beechey original, initially retained by the artist, was shown at the Royal Academy in London in 1802, just under two years after Watt retired formally from participation in the partnership with Boulton. It’s also shown on the homepage of this website.)

The Partridge copy (shown below) is said to have been given by Watt’s son to his father’s medical attendant during the final illness of the great engineer – so it is particularly special.

Listen to Helen talk about the portrait . . . .

Half-length oil portrait of James Watt by John Partridge, after an original by Sir William Beechey.

John Partridge 1790-1872); after Sir William Beechey
James Watt, 1736 – 1819. Engineer, inventor of the steam engine, 1806
Painting, oil on canvas, 76.8 x 64.2 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1984
Photo: Antonia Reeve


The drawing

Helen went on to pick out her third choice – a large chalk drawing in profile by the Paisley modeller John Henning, created in 1809.

It was commissioned by the Scots judge and litterateur Francis, Lord Jeffrey (who also penned the 1819 obituary of Watt for the newly-founded Scotsman newspaper). A version of this drawing was used by Henning as the basis of cameos.

Listen to Helen talk about Henning’s piece here . . . .

James Watt, 1736 - 1819. Engineer, inventor of the steam engine. Picture courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

John Henning (1778–1840)
James Watt, 1736 – 1819. Engineer, inventor of the steam engine, 1809
Drawing, chalk on paper, 53 x 43.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by Miss M. Campbell 1891
Photo: Antonia Reeve


Helen also mentioned Watt’s appearance in the stunning frieze which surrounds the entrance hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The masterpiece

Her last choice was an imposing painting by James Eckford Lauder.

Entitled “James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century (1855)” – this huge oil painting is the ultimate incarnation of the kettle legend surrounding James Watt.

According to Helen it is “strongly reminiscent” of Joseph Wright of Derby’s celebrations of 18th century technical and scientific innovations (the best known are “A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery in Which a Lamp Is Put in Place of the Sun” (Derby Art Gallery) and “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (National Gallery, London).

Lauder’s huge oil took a while to sell (it is scarcely suited to a domestic interior except the grandest). But in 1860 it was engraved by Graves of Pall Mall, a top London-based print publishers; the resulting prints were issued both from London and New York.

Listen to Helen talk about Lauder’s masterpiece here . . . .

James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century

James Eckford Lauder (1811–1869)
James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century, 1855 
Painting, oil on canvas, 147.32 x 238.76 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1986
Photo: Antonia Reeve


With thanks to Helen and the team at the National Galleries of Scotland.