We know that the Gaskells hung a painting – River Landscape with Ruined Castle – by the Scottish artist Alexander Nasmyth above the fireplace in the drawing room at Plymouth Grove. Until October 13, 2021, we had a copy of the painting hanging in the House which you can see in the photogrph below. But now Manchester Art Gallery has agreed to loan the original painting to the House so that it can hang back where it belongs! And it is a glory!
So what do we know about the painting and its connection to the Gaskell family?
- The artist, Alexander Nasmyth, was born in Edinburgh on September 9, 1758. When he was 16, he was taken to London by the portrait painter Allan Ramsay and worked for him, contributing to the backgrounds of Ramsay’s paintings. When he came back to Edinburgh, Nasmyth initially worked as a portrait painter before developing as a landscape artist. His landscape paintings are firmly rooted in place and depict real natural scenes, and buildings often play an important role in his pictures. River Landscape with Ruined Castle would seem to be a typical example of his later work.
- Alexander Nasmyth’s son James is renowned as the inventor of the steam hammer. An archetypal Victorian polymath, he was an inventor, a philosopher and an artist as well as an engineer. Interestingly, his father Alexander, was interested in engineering, developing a number of engineering innovations which were widely used. James Nasmyth was a great friend of William Gaskell’s, and with his wife regularly visited the Gaskell family. In 1836 along with Holbrook Gaskell, William’s cousin, he co-founded Nasmyth, Gaskell and Co as a manufacturer of machine tools. The character of Mr Manning in Sylvia’s Lovers is widely accepted to be based on James Nasmyth – ‘ a man in decent but unfashionable Sunday clothes, his plain sensible face full of hard lines – the marks of toil and thought – his hands blackened beyond the power of soap and water by years of labour in the foundry, speaking with a strong Northern dialect.’ But why should we be interested in this connection with James Nasmyth?
- Elizabeth Gaskell describes one visit to the Nasmyths on August 4, 1838 in a letter to William’s sister Elizabeth she wrote the following Tuesday: ‘On Saty we () went to Patricroft, to call on Nasmyths and Mrs R. G.’ Mrs R G would be Mrs Roger Gaskell, Holbrook Gaskell’s mother. And now for the interesting part! ‘Lucy in raptures over the Nasmyths paintings – ( Hurrah by the way! for we’ve got our own precious painting at this very moment gladdening Wm’s eyes). And I’m making the very reasonable assumption that this painting is Alexander Nasmyth’s River Landscape with Ruined Castle, and that the Gaskell’s had been introduced to the work of Alexander Nasmyth by his son James!
- In 1884, Meta and Julia Gaskell donated the painting to the newly formed Manchester Art Gallery which was asking for art donations to develop its collections. The donation was possibly made as a tribute to their father, who had died in May that year, and especially as it seems from Elizabeth’s letter above, the painting was a particular favourite of his.
Do come and enjoy the painting the next time you visit the House!
Lesley – House Volunteer