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7 Sept 2020

James Nasmyth and the Philosopher’s Stone

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen, Regional Curator, Edinburgh and East
An unframed oil painting of an elderly man sitting in a stone cellar-type building is displayed against a plain grey background. The room is filled with glass jars, pots and vases. A long dark drape hangs to the left.
‘The Alchemist’, by James Nasmyth, 1864. Oil on panel, c30cm x 40cm, National Trust for Scotland Collections
Nasmyth’s painting ‘The Alchemist’ tells a tale of an old man and a youthful student, whose knowledge and energy combine to overcome the Spanish Inquisition.

This painting can be found in the collection at Threave and shows a European Gothic interior. It hints at a setting in the 13th century when alchemy was considered a real scientific pursuit, offering the possibility of transforming base metals into gold. Pope Clement IV (1190–1268) was an advocate of its teaching and considered alchemy and astrology to be part of both natural philosophy and theology.

The focus of this painting is the elderly alchemist himself, who sits, lost in thought, holding onto a large book. Surrounding him are the tricks of his trade – the jars, retorts and glass vials that hold and capture liquids processed through his still. His books and globe are remnants of the libraries he has searched, philosophies he has ruminated upon, countries he has travelled through – all in his quest to find the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life that may keep us youthful in mind and body.

A close-up of a section of an oil painting, showing a stone room with a wide range of glass bowls and orbs on the floor. The shelved walls are crammed with books and more vials and jars.
‘The Alchemist’ (detail)

James Nasmyth (1808–90) painted several versions of this subject, combining his passions for science with art. Nasmyth is best known today as a Scottish engineer – his greatest claim to fame being his invention of the steam hammer. On the back of this painting is his monogram: a little picture of a steam hammer in black and red with HYS MARKE written underneath.

A painted mark on a piece of canvas, with the writing ...SMYTH just visible in the top left corner and the phrase HYS MARKE in the middle. The design resembles a black bell with a red bulb inside, which appears to be glowing.
Nasmyth’s mark on the back of the wooden panel for his painting.

Nasmyth was the son of the artist and portrait painter Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840). James’s older brother Patrick was a renowned landscape artist, and his six sisters – Jane, Barbara, Margaret, Elizabeth, Anne and Charlotte – were also notable artists. James was so successful in his engineering that he retired at the age of 48, and moved to Penshurst, Kent where he developed his hobbies of astronomy, photography and painting.

It’s likely that this 1864 painting was inspired by The Student of Salamanca by American author Washington Irving (1783–1859), which was published as a short tale in the 1822 book Bracebridge Hall. Nasmyth sent drawings to Washington Irving at the close of 1858, to let him know of the ‘great pleasure’ he had derived from the author’s ‘fascinating’ works. (SeeJames Nasmyth, Engineer: An Autobiography, Samuel Smiles [ed.] and James Nasmyth, 1883) Irving replied, from his home Sunnyside, remarking:
It is indeed a heartfelt gratification to me to think that I have been able by any exercises of my pen to awaken such warm and delicate sympathies, and to call forth such testimonials of pleasure and appropriation from a person of your cultivated tastes and intellectual elevation.

An oil portrait of a young man is shown without the frame in view. He sits against a plain, dark background. He wears a white shirt with a high collar, and a brown, fur-lined jacket on top. He has short, dark, curly hair and medium-length sideburns.
Washington Irving by George Dunlop Leslie (1858). Copy after the original by Charles Robert Leslie, National Trust for Scotland, Drum Castle, Aberdeenshire

The student in Irving’s story enters a vaulted chamber only to find half-burnt books, shattered containers and a bleeding alchemist. The old man is devastated by a failed experiment and is too weak and despondent to carry on. ‘Nothing’, he tells the student, ‘nothing is wanting for man’s perfection but a longer life, less crossed with sorrows and maladies, to the attaining of the full and perfect knowledge of things.’

The young man feels for the old man’s misery and at once jumps at the chance to help, appealing to the alchemist: ‘You have acquired experience; you have amassed the knowledge of a lifetime; it were a pity it should be thrown away … Add your knowledge to my youth and activity, and what shall we not accomplish?’

Irving’s stories are notoriously romantic, especially in their visions of Spanish life (he served as ambassador to Spain from 1842 to 1846). However, one of his principal themes in this story is an entirely believable friendship between a young student and an elderly man. The alchemist has spent his entire life absorbed in ancient manuscripts in the pursuit of higher truths and has reached a point of hopelessness. His intellectual pursuits make him a target of torture and suspicion from the Spanish Inquisition, but he is also a prisoner in his ageing body. The young student sees that, with the alchemist’s knowledge and his youthful energy, they can conquer the pitfalls before them.

A close-up of a section of an oil painting, showing an old man sitting on a wooden chair with a drape over the back. He wears a cap over his head and has a short beard. He holds a large book on his lap and looks towards two green glass vials set up on a tripod.
‘The Alchemist’ (detail of the elderly man in his pavilion)

Ultimately, the story ends with the student falling in love with the alchemist’s daughter and their escape from the Inquisition. The old man is given a ‘pavilion’ as a laboratory, where he dies ‘in his ninetieth year, just as he was on the point of discovering the Philosopher’s Stone’. This is the scene Nasmyth chose for his 1864 painting.

The philosopher’s stone, made so famous in recent times by J K Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel, is ultimately a symbol of attaining perfection. In Irving’s story, the relationship between the wisdom of the old and the vigour of youth is where this quest for excellence has the best chance of being fostered.

This painting was owned by the Huddersfield mill owner Edward Brook and hung in his Scottish baronial mansion Hoddom Castle, around 30 miles east of Threave. It passed through the family and was donated to the National Trust for Scotland in 2015 by Mrs C Spragge.

View more paintings in the Threave House collection at the ArtUK website.

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