Portrait in oils of John Miller CE FRSE (1805-1883), Scottish Railway Engineer by Sir John Watson Gordon RSA.
Scottish railway engineer John Miller built more railways in Scotland in the course of his working life than any other engineer, and he still managed to retire at the age of 45. His career flourished in the second quarter of the 19th century – the years of the ‘Railway Age’ and ‘Railway Mania’. By the end of 1843, Miller had engineered 40% of Scotland’s 442 km of track. In November 1845 he submitted proposals to Parliament for a further 2,400 km, and by 1866 a significant proportion of Scotland’s 3,610 km of railway had been designed by him, including most of the main lines to 1850. He recognised the importance of rail for commerce, stating that “a manufacturing population go[es] about much more than an agricultural population …”.
Perhaps Miller’s greatest achievement was the 72 km Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway of 1842. Planning and surveying began when he was only 20 and already working with his mentor and future partner, Thomas Grainger. He became the project’s engineer in 1838, responsible for the line and its many bridges, three tunnels and seven viaducts, including the spectacular Almond Valley Viaduct. He knew railway pioneers George (1781-1848) and son Robert Stephenson (1803-59), and admired and respected their work. He followed their lead in trying to minimise gradients along the maximum length of rail tracks. Miller built well-engineered lines and beautiful masonry structures that have stood the test of time.
Miller was a self-made man with a lifelong interest in continuing education and self-improvement. He wasn’t shy about offering his opinion. However, he doted on his family and worked diligently to secure their prosperity. He invested in the railways he worked on, often becoming a shareholder – a shrewd move that helped him amass a fortune. He then spent more than three decades in busy retirement, devoting much of his time and money to the Free Church of Scotland, as well as serving as a Member of Parliament for Edinburgh.
From around 1830 Miller formed a close friendship with David Octavius Hill the Scottish painter and pioneer of photography. At that time, before the age of photography, Hill was a practicing artist. Miller commissioned Hill to paint a number of pictures of key aspects of the railways he was designing. Subsequently, Miller took a keen interest in photography and he and Hill together created the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1856. One painting commissioned by Miller is of the Ballochmyle Viaduct (see https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/ballochmyle-viaduct-over-the-river-ayr-84489).
Another of Hill’s paintings is of the multi-arched Almond Viaduct on the Edinburgh – Glasgow Railway designed by Miller (see https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/viaduct-over-the-river-almond-west-lothian-84490).
The portrait is on loan from Live Borders Museums, Galleries & Archives.