About this artwork

James Watt achieved lasting fame as an engineer and scientist when his improvement of Newcomen's steam engine made it a practical industrial tool. Soon, his partnership with businessman Matthew Boulton led to the opening of a purpose-built steam engine factory. In 1800 Watt withdrew from active participation in the business and became entirely devoted to research. After his death in 1819, the ‘watt’ – a unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power – was named in his honour. This portrait is a copy of a painting by Sir William Beechey. The original was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802 and was regarded a true likeness by Watt himself. Partridge painted this copy a few years later and secured additional sittings by Watt to enhance the resemblance.

Sir William Beechey

John Partridge

Sir William Beechey

Sir William Beechey was a successful portrait painter with unparalleled royal patronage. His intended legal career was cut short by a chance meeting with students of the Royal Academy Schools and in 1772 Beechey entered the schools himself. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776. After five years in Norwich, he moved back to London in 1787 where he stepped into the vacuum left by Gainsborough’s death and Reynolds’ retirement. He gained a reputation for straight-forward, unpretentious and careful portraiture and in 1793 he was appointed painter to Queen Charlotte. Not long afterwards he was made a member of the Royal Academy – on King George’s request, it was rumoured – but he fell from royal favour in 1806. He continued to exhibit at the Academy until the year before his death.

John Partridge

Glasgow-born Partridge was a successful painter of portraits and subject pictures. He studied under Thomas Phillips and later at the Royal Academy Schools and in Italy. In 1827 he settled in London, where his patrons included members of the aristocracy and gentry. In 1840 he painted portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and in 1843 enjoyed a brief appointment as portrait painter to the queen. Partridge’s career was marred by opposition from within the Royal Academy. After upsetting an Academician in 1833, his own paintings at the Academy were badly and obscurely hung. In 1846 he decided never to exhibit there again, a decision which led to fewer portrait commissions and ruined his hopes of an associate-ship of the institution.