The Great Western Railway in the 1840s must have been both exciting and a subject of huge trepidation. Steam power had been established for some years by the time Turner painted this view in 1844, which is my ‘Painting of the Month’ for January. The public railway was quite new though, especially in southern England, maybe 10-15 years at most. What people must have thought of the prospect of thundering down from London to Bath at 40 miles per hour who knows. Nearly two hundred years on the railway is so much part of our life and landscape it becomes headline news when fares go up.
Maybe the acceptance of the early railways has similarities with the internet. The technology is well established and understood but the power and consequences of the internet fill traditionalists with fear and trepidation while the forward looking acknowledge the opportunities and benefits to be realised.
What did the great English painter, Turner make of it? He certainly anticipated the Impressionists in finding comfort in painting scenes of modernity and nothing represented the modern better than the railway. Turner’s image is universally recognised as Maidenhead railway bridge with the old “Bath Road” stone bridge on the left. The view is towards Taplow and London but it is difficult to see quite where Turner’s perspective was looking down on the train.
The train will be hauled by one of the early steam engines to appear on the railways coughing out fire, steam and smoke and of course noise. The bridge, completed in 1839, is one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpieces, still the largest brick arch in the world. The centres of the arches are so wide that the brickwork is virtually horizontal making it such a fantastic feat of architecture / engineering.
Turners painting style is instantly recognisable in the painting and picking up detail is difficult but look out for the hare running alongside the train. What is the hare telling us. Is it simply running away from the noise? Is it Turner telling us how fast the train is travelling? To reach the speed of a racing hare in 1844 was indeed quite an achievement. Is it more subtle – maybe the traditionalists saying modernity is all very well but nature still produces faster transport. Maybe a short sited view, to be proved untrue only a few years later, akin to not appreciating the power of digital technology.
I never fail to be inspired by Turner’s atmospheric paintings and seeing this great representation of burgeoning modernity in the National Gallery is always a treat. Do see the original and not the numerous copies in station waiting rooms the length and breadth of the West Country.
Rain, Steam, Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, William Mallord William Turner, The National Gallery, London.