Star of the Industrial Revolution returns to Birmingham

  • 5 July 2006

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has purchased a portrait of engineer James Watt by the great British portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence, with Art Fund help.

The painting was acquired for £302,200 with a £67,200 contribution from The Art Fund. Additional funding came from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

James Watt (1736-1819) is well-known as one of the most important engineers of the Industrial Revolution, developing a steam engine that profoundly altered the landscape of both Great Britain and the rest of the world.

His contribution to industry was so significant that in 1882, 63 years after his death, the British Association gave his name to the unit of power, the Watt. Today his name is found on almost every light bulb in the world.

Watt’s extraordinary new steam engines were produced at the Soho engineering works in Handsworth Heath, outside Birmingham, after he moved to the city from Glasgow in 1775 to form a business partnership with Birmingham manufacturer Matthew Boulton. Within two years Boulton & Watt’s Soho-built machines were powering cotton mills and mines across Britain.

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was regarded as the finest portrait painter in England for most of his working life. He had a prodigious talent, and when he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1787, aged just 18, he was already totally proficient and painting in oils. During his hugely successful career Lawrence painted a host of eminent public figures, royals, bankers, actresses and members of high society. Lawrence chose to exhibit the portrait of Watt alongside several other recent favourites at the Royal Academy in 1813.

The portrait is now on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery