Picturing James Watt: On the Occasion of a Major New Exhibition at the Science Museum, 'James Watt and Our World', Which Opened on 23 March, the Senior Curator of Engineering Technologies Reviews the Iconography of the Legendary Developer of Early Steam Engines

By Insley, Jane | British Art Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Picturing James Watt: On the Occasion of a Major New Exhibition at the Science Museum, 'James Watt and Our World', Which Opened on 23 March, the Senior Curator of Engineering Technologies Reviews the Iconography of the Legendary Developer of Early Steam Engines


Insley, Jane, British Art Journal


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It has become almost traditional in biographies or memoirs of James Watt to include a list and discussion of his portraits. The few that were created in his lifetime and over which it can be assumed he had some command have particular resonance as they are occasionally supplemented by written evidence of his or the family's opinion of them--which ones they liked, or, if they disliked them, why. These in turn became the source for innumerable copies through engravings, prints, mezzotints and so on; some were used as preliminary work for posthumous statuary or other representations for which the motives may be usefully explored. Towards the end of his life, Watt became ever more conscious of how he would be portrayed to posterity, and in this he was supported by his eldest son James Watt Jnr. The back stories of the portraits of Watt, and indeed others of his contemporaries, have been the focus of much recent scholarship to show how he was posthumously appropriated to the cause of politics, taste, science funding, the reputation of Scotland, and the status of British engineering with respect to the rest of the world, through the 19th century and beyond.

One particularly persistent story/myth surrounding Watt senior's childhood fascination with a domestic kettle (see Pls 1, 2) was retold by their cousin James Patrick Muirhead in the biography he assembled in the 1850s. (1) This family story was related to another cousin by an elderly aunt in 1798, written down, and supplied to Francois Arago for his Eloge of James Watt published in 1839. Arago had met James Watt Jnr at the British Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting in 1834, and subsequently received two versions of the story. In his discussion of this incident, David Miller (2009) not only unpicked the sources, but also followed the kettle myth through genre paintings (the earliest by Buss in 1845, and another by Stone in 1863 being both much copied), a kettle-shaped visitor information centre, a Japanese woodblock of the 1870s (Pl 2), sermons, advertising, and even a Monty Python sketch. (2)

Two years earlier, another Watt scholar Christine Macleod considered Watt as a new (for the 1820s) form of national hero, the inventor, and how this was constructed, supported (or not), and finally waned. (3) Her starting point was the attitude to inventors as revealed by the issuing of patents, which carried monopolistic advantage, alongside the threat to established work patterns and employees. Watt was posthumously turned into a personification of the claim that ingenuity and enterprise had more to do with Britain's greatness than military prowess, and was seized on as a counterpoint to prevailing aristocratic military government. A surge in interest in inventors was fed by the impact of growing cities, expanding railways and more generally the transforming of the landscape by industry. The Great Exhibition of 1851 put the new technologies in a highly positive light, and Bennet Woodcroft at the new Patent Office Museum strove to preserve and publicize the men behind manufacturing industry, supplying biographical details to authors and assembling a collection of portraits. Through the Victorian era other forms of commemoration included public statues, stained glass windows, named chairs at universities, and annexing a corner in Westminster Abbey.

The Science Museum has acquired copies of many of the main Watt portraits over the years, and the preparation of a new exhibition in 2011 presented the opportunity to review our holdings. We have found that although members of the general public may have heard of Watt, he is commonly regarded as the English Victorian engineer who invented the light bulb--in addition to being incorrect on three counts, this impression will be a difficult one to dislodge. The portraits will be used to initiate a discussion of who James Watt was, and why the museum has chosen to feature him prominently in its public areas.

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