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By Jane Insley on

James Watt, RIP

James Watt died 191 years ago today. He was considered one of the most important engineers in the country, and after his death he was turned into a national hero. The result was a slew of statues, memorials and paintings – some of which will go on show in a new exhibition opening in spring 2011. More details to follow…

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792.
James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

When Watt was 59, his friend and partner Matthew Boulton introduced him to Carl von Breda, who painted the earliest portrait that that Watt was known to sit for. At the time, 1792, he was fighting to save their steam engine business from legal challenges, but was wealthy enough to have built his house Heathfield near Birmingham to suit his growing family.

James Watt from painting by Lawrence, 1813 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1815, he was more relaxed, and more prepared to have his portrait painted. This one, by Thomas Lawrence, was much liked by the artist, who thought it was the finest he had ever painted, but the family – James Watt, and his eldest son James Watt Jnr – didn’t really care for it.

James Watt, Scottish engineer (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Another highly regarded artist, Sir Francis Chantrey, produced a marble bust for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1815. Watt was swathed in a toga-like cloak as a 19th century conceit to show he was a true philosopher.

The bust was much copied, and even Watt had a go, using the bust to test his sculpture-copying machines. He wrote to a friend “I do not think myself of importance enough to fill up so much of my friends’ houses as the original bust does”.

James Watt, British engineer, as a young man, c 1769 painted 1860. Science Museum / Science & Society

This was painted after Watt’s death, but he is shown as a young man studying a mal-functioning model of a Newcomen steam engine. The challenge of trying to get it to work put Watt on the road to perfecting full-size engines.

Bizarrely there was even a Japanese woodcut, prepared in the 1880s for primary school children, showing him testing the steam from a boiling kettle in his aunt’s house.