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Significant Scots
Peter Nasmyth

The Meeting of the Avon and Severn - 1826NASMYTH, PETER, was the son of Alexander Nasmyth, the subject of the preceding notice, and was born in Edinburgh in 1786. In his earliest boyhood Peter showed that love for painting by which his family, of whom he was the eldest son, were distinguished. So wholly, indeed, were his affections devoted to this pursuit, that he made no progress in the ordinary branches of a schoolboy’s education, and neither the allurements of duxship, nor the compulsion of the tawse, could suffice to make him even a tolerable scholar. The school-room itself was abandoned whenever a bright sunshine announced that nature could be seen at its best; and on these occasions the truant boy was to be found in the fields or among the hedges, pencil in hand, taking sketches of the flowers and trees. Another proof of his enthusiastic devotedness to the art is yet more remarkable. While still very young, he was engaged to accompany his father on a sketching excursion; but in his preparations for the journey on the previous evening, an accident lamed his right hand, so that he was to be laid aside as unfit for service. But his left hand was still untouched, and with this he handled his pencil so effectually that the difference was scarcely perceptible. This fact will remind some readers of the bold Spartan, who seized and held the Persian galley first with his right hand, and then with his left, and when these were successively lopped off, secured his prize with his teeth until he was decapitated. The undertaking of the young artist was equally resolute, and fully more difficult. Many of these left-handed sketches are now sought by collectors, and prized for their remarkable neatness and fidelity. As Scotland, with all its beautiful scenery, has one of the most fickle of climates, so that its landscape sketchers are often wetted to the skin, Peter Nasmyth endeavoured to counteract these interruptions, so as to continue his labours in storm as well as sunshine. One of his devices for this purpose was a travelling tent, which he sometimes carried about with him into the country; and though it was more like a little clumsy booth for the exhibition of Punch at a fair, than the shrine of an artist, having been formed by his own hands, which had no skill whatever in carpentry, he consoled himself for the jeers of his companions by the good service which it yielded him. As may be guessed, this booth was never pitched upon the mountain tops when the storm was at the wildest.

At the age of twenty, Peter Nasmyth went to London, and commenced in earnest the profession of a landscape painter, in which he acquired such distinction that he was called the English Hobbima. It was rather, however, from the minuteness of his touch and finish that he resembled the great Flemish painter, for he could not pretend to Hobbima’s boldness and vigour. Still his scenes, and especially his English ones, abounding in objects of minute beauty, and reposing tranquilly beneath an untroubled sky, secured him a reputation as a landscape painter superior to that of his father. His Scottish scenery, however, was inferior; as its wild grandeur and massiveness were not so congenial to the particular bent of his artistic excellence. As a scholar, Hobbima and Ruysdael were his favourite guides; but while he endeavoured to acquire their spirit, he was far from being a copyist: on the contrary, he had a delicacy that was all his own, and gave him the foremost place in that distinguished family which has obtained the name of the "Nasmyth School."

The success with which his excellencies were rewarded was such as to animate him in his labours, and his productions were so highly prized as to be in universal request among the genuine lovers of art, so that every choice collection of England contains the works of his pencil, while every scrap and relic of his studio still continues to be sought after. But while patronage was at the height, and orders flowing in upon him in greatest profusion, he was dying before his day—not a martyr, however, to the pure and ennobling art which he loved so well, and which would have cherished him so affectionately, but to a vice which degrades the highest intellect and most refined tastes to the level of the meanest. At the early age of seventeen, Peter Nasmyth, in consequence of sleeping in a damp bed, was seized with deafness, which continued with him to the last; and being thus in a great measure shut out from the healthful excitement of conversation, he endeavoured to console himself by the stimulus of the bottle—and that, too, in the retirement of his study, where the usual checks were not likely to enter. Of course, the habit grew rapidly upon him, so that he became old and feeble while still young in years. At last, being attacked by influenza, he ventured, before he had recovered, to go to Norwood, to make a sketch of a scene which he had particularly admired; but he paid dear for his enthusiasm, by a return of the disease, against which his enfeebled constitution had no power to rally. Even then, his dying gaze was still in quest of the beauty and grandeur which he had so loved to delineate; and in a thunder-storm which occurred while he was dying, he besought his sisters to raise him up in bed, that he might see its passing splendour and its effects before he had himself departed. Thus he passed away, on the 17th of August, 1831, at his lodgings, in South Lambeth, at the age of forty-five.

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