Feel Art Again: "A View of Tantallon Castle"

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On this gloomy, cloudy day, I present to you "A View of Tantallon Castle" by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), who is regarded as the founder of Scottish landscape painting. Nasmyth's view of the Tantallon Castle is representative of the style for which he is most well-known: Scottish landscapes in the Italian tradition.

1. Alexander Nasmyth provided several illustrations for collected editions of Sir Walter Scott's poems. The inspiration for "A View of Tantallon Castle" is thought to have come from Scott's epic poem, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, in which Scott describes the 14th-century castle and a "gathering ocean-storm."

His giant-form, like ruin'd tower,
Though fall'n its muscles' brawny vaunt,
Huge-boned, and tall, and grim, and gaunt,
Seem'd o'er the gaudy scene to lower:
His locks and beard in silver grew;
His eyebrows kept their sable hue.
Near Douglas when the Monarch stood,
His bitter speech he thus pursued :
"˜Lord Marmion, since these letters say
That in the North you needs must stay,
While slightest hopes of peace remain,
Uncourteous speech it were, and stern,
To say-Return to Lindisfarne,
Until my herald come again.-
Then rest you in Tantallon Hold;
Your host shall be the Douglas bold,-
A chief unlike his sires of old.

(Canto V, lines 415-431)

2. Nasmyth was very involved in the alterations and improvements in Edinburgh. In a competition for the best plan for laying out and building "the New Town of Edinburgh," Nasmyth and two others shared first prize. When he wasn't designing the improvements himself, Nasmyth was often commissioned to paint landscape scenes that illustrated a proposed modification. Known also "as a man of science," he designed the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh and invented "bow and string" bridges, a new kind of rivet, and a method of driving the screw-propellers of vessels by direct action.

3. While Nasmyth is known for his landscapes, his most famous painting is his portrait of Robert Burns. The two men were friends, often walking together through scenic areas of Scotland, and Nasmyth drew encouragement for his own work from Burns' poems. The Gentleman's Magazine wrote, "To his friendship with Burns the world is indebted for the only authentic portrait which exists of the great Scottish poet."

4. In 1798, Nasmyth opened his own art school at his home, 47 York Place, in Edinburgh. He believed that students should draw directly from nature, not be studio-bound. His students included his son Patrick, who became a successful landscape painter; his daughters Anne, Barbara, Charlotte, and Jane, who also became painters; and his son James, a famous engineer and the inventor of the steam hammer, who also later became an artist.

A larger version of the painting is available here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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February 26, 2008 - 10:21am
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