Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1735 - 1811
Portrait of John Rennie, FRSE, FRS, 1761 – 1821
Portrait of John Rennie, FRSE, FRS,

"the late John Rennie Esq"

pencil on paper
( 26 x 20 cm. ) 10.1/4 x 8in.


published by William Daniell, after George Dance soft-ground etching, published 15 August 1810 (28 May 1803)  NPG D12160


John Rennie, (1761–1821), engineer, was born on 7 June 1761 at Phantassie, Haddingtonshire, the youngest of the nine children of James Rennie (d. 1766), a farmer and owner of a brewery, and his wife, Jean, née Rennie (1720–1783). George Rennie (1749–1828), the agriculturist, was his oldest brother and took over the family interests when their father died in 1766. Their eldest sister, Marion (1744–1809), married James Mylne (1738/9–1788), poet. John went to the parish school at Prestonkirk. A precocious interest in machinery was nurtured by the well-known millwright Andrew Meikle (1719–1811), inventor of the threshing machine and improver of the windmill, who lived on the estate. Rennie started to work for Meikle when he was twelve, getting a grounding in practical mechanics. For two years (1775–7) he was then at Dunbar high school, where a visitor, David Loch, singled him out for his ‘amazing powers of genius’ in mathematics and experimental and natural philosophy. Later, when his teacher at Dunbar retired, Rennie was asked to succeed him but agreed to do so only temporarily, as his ambitions lay elsewhere.

After working again for Meikle, with his help and consent Rennie set up on his own as a millwright in 1779. Among his first jobs was building a mill for his brother to house one of Meikle's earliest threshing machines. Though soon in a good way of business, he opted to combine practical work with studies at Edinburgh University, where he matriculated in November 1780, continuing until 1783. Here he made friends with two eminent teachers, the chemist Joseph Black and the professor of natural philosophy, John Robison, and gained a breadth of scientific interest as well as some grasp of theoretical engineering concepts.

In 1783 Rennie took a study tour into England, making notes on canals, bridges, and machinery along his route. His destination was Birmingham, where a letter from Robison procured him an introduction to James Watt. Watt, in need of a millwright to extend the mechanical scope of his steam engine, was greatly taken with Rennie. The next year Boulton and Watt offered him the job of looking after their London business and erecting the engines they supplied for the Albion Mills, the revolutionary flour mill at the south end of Blackfriars Bridge conceived and designed by Samuel Wyatt. To this end Rennie moved to London, setting up a workshop at a Thames wharf near the mill. The millwork for the twenty sets of grinding stones was supplied by Wyatt, but the substitution of much iron gearing for the customary timber was probably Rennie's idea; there was much friction between the two men.

Rennie opened the Albion Mills to visitors when production began in 1786, despite the secretive Watt's disapproval. The building burned down in 1791, but by then Rennie's reputation was made and he was supplying millwork for customers as far away as France, Spain, and Portugal. He made moving machinery for mills, breweries, and factories of all kinds, including a variety of machines for the new Boulton and Watt factory at Birmingham (erected by his foreman, Peter Ewart). Rolling mills for mints were a speciality, most of the equipment for the new Royal Mint at Tower Hill being Rennie's. He was ingenious in improving mechanical devices. A pioneer in applying steam power to pile-driving and dredging, he was among the first to make regular use of ball-bearings, improved the water-wheel and diving bell, experimented with stone pipes for water supply, and contributed to the evolution of the gantry crane. To meet the demand for his machines, he in 1810 built a larger factory at Holland Street, Southwark, on part of the old Albion Mills site.

The year 1790 proved to be significant for Rennie, both personally and professionally. He married Martha Ann Mackintosh (d. 1806). They had nine children, of whom George Rennie (1791–1866) and Sir John Rennie (1794–1874) carried on his work. A daughter, Anna, married the architect C. R. Cockerell. In 1790 a second phase of Rennie's career also began when he was appointed surveyor to the Kennet and Avon Canal. Design and consultancy for civil engineering henceforward took up the bulk of his time. Along the Kennet and Avon (1794–1813), 57 miles long and with seventy-eight locks, many bridges, and several aqueducts and tunnels, Rennie's penchant for solidity first made its mark. But he was hampered by a tight budget and problems of water supply, only in part alleviated by the steam-powered pumping station at Crofton and the one at Claverton powered by a water wheel. In the same years he laid out the Rochdale Canal and the Lancaster Canal with the noble Lune aqueduct, as well as the Aberdeen Canal, the Crinan Canal, the Royal Canal of Ireland, and the Royal Military Canal (a product of the Napoleonic invasion scare of 1803–4).

Rennie also took on a multitude of river navigation and harbour improvements, fen drainage schemes, and waterworks. In London, he was a key figure in the expansion of the commercial docks during the French wars. He acted as engineer to the London docks (1800–05) and with Ralph Walker to the East India docks (1803–6), and he built extensions and some remarkable sheds at the West India docks (1809–17). For the Admiralty, Rennie made wartime improvements to the Thames naval dockyards, including a superb steam-powered smithy at Woolwich, but his detailed scheme of 1807 for a wholly new dockyard at Northfleet was not carried out. His grandest executed work for government was the mile-long protective breakwater at Plymouth Sound, started in 1811 and completed in 1848. Its scale was admired by Napoleon when he arrived as a prisoner at Plymouth in 1815, to Rennie's gratification.

The thoroughness of his reports was a key to Rennie's reputation. He was often asked to adjudicate on others' projects, and his name was of great value to promoters. He worked well with others and could delegate, but was conscious of his own worth. His foremost collaborative endeavour was with Robert Stevenson, on the famous Bell Rock lighthouse off Arbroath (1807–10). The apportionment of responsibility for this work led to prolonged disputes between their respective descendants, but it is now certain that while Stevenson designed the lighthouse in the main, Rennie's role too was significant.

Rennie is now chiefly admired and remembered as a bridge-builder. He was designing bridges as early as 1784 and extended their range throughout his career. His masonry bridges were marked by solidity, precision, and a definite structural philosophy. He was alive and receptive to the ideas of French engineers of Perronet's school, but critical of their practical record. The multi-arched road bridges of his maturity all had swept walls to the abutments, elliptical or segmental arches, pointed breakwaters, hidden inverted arches over the piers, and a level surface from end to end.

Rennie's crowning achievement was the trio of metropolitan bridges spanning the Thames: Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge, and London Bridge, all constructed by Edward Banks (1770–1835) of the early contracting firm, Jolliffe and Banks, which had built many of his canals. Waterloo Bridge (1811–17) was his masterpiece. Though privately promoted, it was the most prestigious bridge project Britain had yet seen. The design was based on his earlier bridge at Kelso. It had nine equal arches, facings in granite (then a new building material in London), and twin Doric columns against the piers. Canova is said to have remarked it was worth coming to England merely to see Waterloo Bridge, while a modern authority has described it as ‘perhaps the finest large masonry bridge ever built in this or any other country’ (A. W. Skempton, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 44, 1971–2, 36). The subsidence of one of the piers led to its destruction by the London county council in the 1930s, despite strenuous and prolonged public protest. Southwark Bridge (1814–19), another private undertaking, had a superstructure of three unequal iron arches on granite piers, the central arch being the widest cast-iron span ever built in Britain. These arches followed on from a previous iron bridge by Rennie (with Thomas Wilson) at Boston, Lincolnshire (1805–8). Though he was keen to vie with Telford in the design of iron bridges, and made an early sketch for crossing the Menai Strait with a single arch and flat deck (1801–2), he was less completely a master of this developing genre. The complexity and expense of the Southwark arches led to the bankruptcy of the iron subcontractors, Walkers of Rotherham, and Rennie was never fully paid for his work; a second large iron bridge, designed on similar principles, was sent out in sections to Lucknow, but not erected there for many years. London Bridge, designed in conjunction with his sons and built posthumously (1823–31), was the last of his masonry bridges. It was removed in 1968 and re-erected in abbreviated form at Lake Havasu City, Arizona, leaving London with no extant memorial to Rennie's genius.

Rennie was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1798, but declined the knighthood offered to him by the prince regent when Waterloo Bridge was opened. Though strong, Rennie consistently overworked. His one recorded ‘holiday’, to France and the Low Countries in 1816 with James Watt junior, was largely taken up with visits to docks and harbours. He did however have a country retreat for family life at Frensham Vale, Farnham. Eventually he fell victim to his own energies, and died of liver disease on 4 October 1821 after a short illness at his home in Stamford Street, Southwark. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, where a plain granite slab in the crypt marks his grave. Among his many engineering pupils or assistants were, besides his sons, John Aird, Henry Bell, Anthony Bower, William Tierney Clark (also a fine bridge-builder), Peter Ewart, Francis Giles, James Hollinsworth, John Thomas, and Joseph Whidbey.

Rennie was a handsome, big man nearly 6 feet 4 inches tall, with equal determination and charm. In private he had a short temper, but he made and kept friends. Charles Dupin pronounced him ‘friendly and welcoming to all foreign engineers who came to England to study his works and profit from his genius’ (Dupin, 6). By religion he was brought up and remained Presbyterian. Like every engineer of his day, he took risks and made mistakes. His stone pipes for the Grand Junction Water Company were an abject failure, and the bridge he built at Highgate Archway was to collapse. A common criticism levelled at Rennie was the massiveness and expense of his structures, but Rennie built to last, and for safety and dignity's sake was free with his clients' money. His capacity for combining manufacturing with design derived from his origins as a millwright or mechanical engineer, but it is as a constructor that he is chiefly now remembered. He and Telford were the greatest civil engineers of their day. Although many modern historians of engineering have preferred Telford on the grounds of his originality in structural design, other authorities have been equally impressed by Rennie. He enjoyed a wider range of skills, greater theoretical ability, and more social approbation than Telford, but has been less fortunate in the survival of his major structures. A memorial of 1928 stands on the hill above East Linton, near Phantassie; in London there is only a poor modern plaque under the north end of the present Waterloo Bridge, where foundations of Rennie's bridge still remain.

Andrew Saint DNB

Artist biography

Dance, Nathaniel [later Sir Nathaniel Holland, baronet] (1735–1811), painter and politician, was born on 18 May 1735 in Chiswell Street, London, the third son of George Dance the elder (c.1694–1768) and his wife, Elizabeth Gould (d. 1762). His father was clerk of works for the City of London, and his brother George Dance the younger (1741–1825) was also an architect; James Dance (1721–1774), the eldest son, was an actor and writer, and another brother, William Dance (fl. 1780), was a miniature painter. Nathaniel Dance was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, London (his father was a freeman of that company), from 1743 until 1748. From about 1752 he trained as an artist for approximately two years under the painter Francis Hayman, whom he evidently admired; it was during this period that he came to know the young Thomas Gainsborough. He was in Rome from May 1754, but his activities there remain obscure until summer 1758; however, it is possible that he undertook some further training during this time. In winter 1758–9 he visited Leghorn and Florence, where he met his brother George: the two probably shared an apartment in strada Felice, Rome.

Dance devoted much of his time in Italy to developing his powers of invention, drawing, and colouring: he made copies after old masters, remarked on the development of his use of colour, and sought criticism of his work from the most esteemed painters then in Rome, including Gavin Hamilton. However, this careful approach often delayed the completion of his most important works. Two commissioned works begun in 1760, Nisus and Euryalus and Meeting of Aeneas and Achates with Venus (exh. Society of Artists, 1766) made slow progress in his studio; the former was not completed by the time Dance left Rome, while the latter was nearing completion only in 1764, the year of his election to the Accademia di San Luca. It was as a history painter that Dance sought to develop: his first recorded such work, Death of Virginia, its composition based upon that of Raphael's Sacrifice of Lystra, was intended for the Society of Arts exhibition of 1760, and Dance was confident that it would win the £100 premium. However, as it was painted abroad it was excluded, and was exhibited the following year at the Society of Artists.

Dance was also a successful and well-connected portrait painter. He was engaged in some form of partnership with one of the most fashionable portraitists of British visitors to Rome, Pompeo Batoni; a travel card of 1762 introduced ‘Rome, Sigr. Pompeo Batoni & Mr Dance, for Portrait and History Painting’ (Ingamells, 275). His portraits in Italy included Charles, Lord Hope, James, Later Third Earl of Hopetoun, and their Tutor William Rouet, a conversation piece of 1763 (priv. coll.) and Lord and Lady Spencer (1764), but his reputation as a portrait painter was already established by 1760, when he was commissioned to paint four versions of a conversation piece, one for each of the group of gentlemen depicted in front of the Colosseum: James Grant, John Mytton, Thomas Robinson, and Thomas Wynn (Yale U. CBA). His most prestigious commission came from the royal librarian and keeper of pictures, Richard Dalton, on behalf of George III, to paint a full-length portrait of Edward, duke of York (1764; Royal Collection). However, a painting of more personal significance was the portrait of the artist Angelica Kauffman (priv. coll), whom he ‘courted at Rome’ (Farington, Diary, 8 Dec 1797).

By June 1766, Dance had returned to London, where he established himself as a fashionable portrait painter at 13 Tavistock Row, Covent Garden. Kauffman arrived in Britain at this date, but their relationship changed and she married the so-called count Frederick de Horn in 1767. Both Dance and Kauffman were foundation members of the Royal Academy [see Founders of the Royal Academy of Arts]. To its inaugural exhibition of 1769 he sent full-length portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte (Uppark, Sussex), as well as likenesses of a bishop and two gentlemen, and his exhibited work until 1772 was dominated by portraiture. In 1773 both he and Gainsborough refused to exhibit at the Royal Academy after a disagreement with the president, Sir Joshua Reynolds: Dance and Gainsborough are the only foundation members not represented in Johann Zoffany's The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771–2; Royal Collection). However, Dance returned to the academy exhibition in 1774, showing Orpheus Lamenting the Loss of Eurydice, and in 1776, showing The Death of Mark Anthony.

The rococo style of Dance's early works, apparent, for example, in the portrait of George Dance the younger and his sister Hester (c.1753; priv. coll.) and that of the composer and violinist Pietro Nardini and an unknown man (1759; priv. coll.), learned from Hayman, was modified in Italy through the influence of Batoni. Dance criticized his former master's ‘colouring and correctness of drawing’ (Allen, 59), and it was precisely those elements that apparently altered after his association with Batoni began. Dance worked in the high keys of grand-manner portraiture and the paint became more translucent in quality; however, it has been observed that his manner of painting was ‘as dry and closely textured as before’ (Goodreau, Nathaniel Dance, 1735–1811, introduction).

The opportunities for history painting were very limited in eighteenth-century Britain, and although Dance's name was among those chosen for potentially the most important project of the time, the decoration of St Paul's Cathedral, the scheme never came to fruition. His name was also among those listed to decorate the Great Room of the Society of Arts, but this project was realized by James Barry alone. His most public history painting was ephemeral, a transparency depicting an allegory of architecture and displayed on the Royal Academy's building in Pall Mall in 1770 to mark the king's birthday.

At some time in the 1770s Dance became financially independent. Although he stopped exhibiting professionally in 1776 and produced fewer paintings, he was still active professionally and contributed to running the Royal Academy. However, in 1782 he gave up his studio and moved to Cranbury Park, Hampshire—the home of a widow, Mrs Harriet Dummer (d. 1825), daughter of Sir Cecil Bishopp; she had an income of £18,000 per annum. They were married in London on 17 July 1783; there were no children.

Dance resigned from the Royal Academy in 1790, the year of his election to parliament as member for East Grinstead, Sussex, but continued to exhibit there as an amateur in 1792, 1794, and 1800. On each occasion he showed a landscape, a more fitting subject for a gentleman than portraiture. However, the story circulated by the obituarist in the Monthly Magazine (December 1811) that he bought back and then destroyed his work in order to consolidate his position as a gentleman is unfounded, although he did destroy a number of works that remained in his studio with which he was dissatisfied. From about the time of Dance's retirement from professional life he produced a number of political caricatures. Warand Neither War nor Peace were etched by James Gillray and published in March 1783, and four volumes of unsigned caricatures and other comic drawings by Nathaniel and his brother George were sold at auction in 1912. The works were dispersed, but many of these pen-and-ink drawings are in the Tate collection.

On 4 July 1800 Dance took, by royal licence, the name Holland, after his wife's cousin Charlotte. He was created a baronet in November in that same year. He served East Grinstead until 1802 and from 1807 until his death; he was MP for Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire from 1802 to 1806. Both seats were gained through family connections and acts of financial generosity. He was generally a supporter of Pitt, but was not an active member of the house; he served on the select committee on the British Museum appointed in June 1805.

Dance was ‘considered a singular man in His manner … on the whole very well liked by the neighbouring aristocracy’ (Farington, Diary, 2 Nov 1807). According to Farington, he ‘always objected to wine … but in company passes the bottle so as to keep up an appearance of drinking some wine’ (ibid., 6 June 1807). He was wealthy: by 1794, in addition to savings of £50,000, he had an estate near Dorchester, Oxfordshire, and another in Wiltshire, for which he paid £30,000 and £12,000 respectively. In 1807 he built a house in Piccadilly, London, for his wife. He died, suddenly, at a house where he was a guest, in Kingsgate Street, Winchester, on 15 October 1811, while humorously describing to a party of ladies the ‘absurdity’ of some monuments recently placed in Winchester Cathedral (ibid., 26 Nov 1811). He was buried in the cathedral. The National Portrait Gallery, London, and Tate collection have a number of his portraits. He is also represented at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

Deborah Graham-Vernon  DNB