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James Watt

1 portrait matching these criteria:

- npg number matching '186a'

James Watt, by Carl Fredrik von Breda, 1792 -NPG 186a - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

James Watt

by Carl Fredrik von Breda
1792
49 1/2 in. x 39 1/2 in. (1257 mm x 1003 mm)
NPG 186a

Inscriptionback to top

Signed above table: Breda p./1792.

This portraitback to top

NPG 186a is an autograph replica of the earliest known portrait of Watt. On 7 June 1792 the engineer John Rennie had asked Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt to sit for their portraits to Mr [Mather] Brown of Cavendish Square in London; Watt replied from Birmingham (9 June) ‘I wish you to come this way ... and we can talk about the portrait to which I am rather averse as I think it an honour I do not merit and that my countenance cannot be worth procuring’. [1] In the event Breda painted them both that year in Birmingham (where he also painted William Withering), and mezzotints of his two portraits by S. W. Reynolds were published in December 1796. Mrs Schimmelpenninck recorded that Watt had instructed ‘a celebrated Swedish artist’, presumably Breda, that rat’s whiskers made ‘the most pliant and elastic painting-brush’. [2] The portrait of Watt is not without fault, the sitter’s raised right arm being unfortunate.
The portrait commissioned by Rennie is now in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London, [3] and another signed and dated version is in the Science Museum, London. [4] Later copies were made by a Miss Binnie (Institution of Civil Engineers, London) and by W. Bright Morris 1905, formerly in Andrew Carnegie’s collection, and now belonging to the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Footnotesback to top

1) Letters cited in H. W. Dickinson & R. Jenkins, James Watt and the Steam Engine, 1927, p 81.
2) Life of Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, ed. C. C. Hankin, 1858, I, p 41.
3) Sold by Rennie’s descendants Christie’s 27 March 1936, lot 84; it had previously been offered for sale in 1881 by Mrs M. A. Rennie (Goldsmith, 25-26 October 1881, lot 163, when bought by Theodore Martin, for whom see NPG 663) but it had returned to George Banks Rennie in 1907.
4) Sold Bukowski’s, Stockholm, 7 April 1987, lot 14, with a pendant portrait of Boulton (now Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery).

Referenceback to top

Dickinson & Jenkins 1927
H. W. Dickinson & R. Jenkins, James Watt and the Steam Engine, 1927, pp 81-89.

Physical descriptionback to top

Blue-grey eyes, greying hair, wearing a black coat and seated in a red chair; on the table lies a drawing of a double-acting rotative steam engine, resembling the Watt patent specification of 1769.

Provenanceback to top

Matthew Piers Watt Boulton of Soho, Birmingham (grandson of Watt’s business partner, Matthew Boulton), from whom stolen by his sub-agent Edward Price; purchased by the NPG from Thomas Scott in 1859 (as NPG 87); when the deception was discovered the portrait was presented to the Gallery by the proper owner, Matthew Piers Watt Boulton, 1865.

Exhibitionsback to top

Watt Centenary, Science Museum, 1919-20; Regency Portraits, Kenwood, 1986; Apples to Atoms, Portraits of Scientists from Newton to Rutherford, NPG travelling exhibition, Science Museum, Norwich, Grasmere, Coalbrookdale, 1986-87; Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG exhibition, Fukushima, Nagoya, Kitakyushu Hiroshima, Tokyo, 1995-96 (19).

Reproductionsback to top

S. W. Reynolds 1796; anon. (pub. Hodgson, London); E. Mackenzie 1806 (half length).


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

View all known portraits for James Watt

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