So Fast, it’s Just a Blur (Rain, Steam and Speed, by J.M.W.Turner)

As I’ve said before, transport is an industry with a unique impact on wider culture, and as further proof of my assertion, this week’s beauty of transport is a genuinely famous painting by a genuinely famous artist, with transport as its subject.

Step forward, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and his painting Rain, Steam and Speed of 1844, currently to be found in the National Gallery of London.

J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) by J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Turner sketched from a young age and in his early career worked for architects and under a draughtsman. Many of his early watercolours are brilliant architectural studies – in particular his View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth – which was accepted into the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition…when Turner was just 15. Take a look at the picture though and you’ll see that although the rendering of the buildings is extraordinary for a teenager, the wheel on the cart (at the right hand side) isn’t quite right. Wheels, as you’ll see later, are something Turner found difficult. I do like the louche fellow slouched on the bench as he talks to the woman in the window of the wine shop.

Later in his career, Turner switched to oils, and painted many highly detailed scenes of boats at sea (no wheels to worry about there). But as he got older, his paintings became more and more impressionistic. That’s not strictly accurate, as impressionism of the French school (exemplified by Monet, for instance) hadn’t actually been invented by that point. So Turner could be seen as having invented impressionism, except that while the French impressionists tried to paint what they could actually see in an impressionistic style, Turner was attempting to represent emotion. In other words, his paintings are trying to put across a mood, rather than accurately reflecting the colours or shapes of what was there.

An alternative to this emotion-led explanation is the rather more prosaic suggestion that his unique style developed as he became increasingly short-sighted. Maybe he forgot his specs when he was out and about. We’ll probably never know for sure.

Rain, Steam and Speed was first displayed in 1844 (hence its attributed date) but it might have been painted a little earlier. It’s widely assumed, though it’s not absolutely certain, that the painting shows the Great Western Railway at Maidenhead Railway Bridge, the extraordinary crossing of the River Taplow designed by the GWR’s chief engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The bridge opened in 1838/39 utilising two arches to cross the river – at the time the widest and flattest arches ever built anywhere in the world. There’s a rather fantastic story that the Board of the GWR didn’t believe that such flat arches would hold themselves up, so they told Brunel to leave the wooden scaffolding, which had supported the arches during construction, in place. He secretly lowered the scaffolding so that it wasn’t actually supporting the arches at all (satisfying himself that he knew what he was doing) and it promptly washed away in the next flood of the river while the bridge stayed up (satisfying everyone else). The bridge is now Grade I listed by English Heritage.

But back to the painting.

In the background is the Maidenhead Bridge, which carries what is now the A4 trunk road. There is a small boat in the river, painted much more realistically than the train. The boat is significant because at the time Turner painted Rain, Steam and Speed, Britain was in the process of transforming from a country which relied almost entirely on waterborne transport for bulk movements, to one in which the railway was taking over as the prime mover. Until then, Britain had been largely coastal, with all the big cities on the coast or the navigable sections of major rivers. The railways allowed easy access to inland areas and the development of great industrial cities in the heart of the country. Canals had set the stage, but the explosive population growth of cities like Birmingham and Leeds came with the arrival of the railways.

Turner’s train is a bit of a shocker, at first glance. Its proportions look all wrong, with a smokebox and funnel which seem too tall for the rest of the train. There’s also the suggestion of a ridiculously oversized dome behind the funnel. Unless it’s a tree on the far bank of the river – it’s hard to tell. The lower part of the smokebox is all red, white and splodgy for reasons I couldn’t begin to guess at (there’s a possible explanation in the blog I mention in the Further Reading section below, though I think it’s a bit far-fetched).

One of the reasons the train’s proportions look strange is because it’s a broad gauge train. Your mind is predisposed to expect trains to have certain proportions based on the fact that most of them run on track where the distance between the rails is 4′ 8½” (or 1,435mm in the new money). Mainland European trains have bodies which are a fair bit wider and taller than British ones, but they’re still recognisably from the same mould. Brunel favoured 7′ ¼” (2,140mm) broad gauge, and if you’ve ever seen a broad gauge steam locomotive up close, you’ll know it takes a moment or two to become accustomed to the sight. They look slightly not-quite-right to our eyes: too big, and in particular too wide. The type of locomotive featured in Rain, Steam and Speed is believed to be a Fire Fly Class locomotive: there’s a replica at the Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire and this page has some photos, including one where it’s alongside a standard gauge locomotive, showing how much wider it is. And although Turner paints the smokebox and chimney pretty accurately in terms of height, the funnel itself is too thin and seems to be lacking the wider cap at the top. Most peculiar, however, is the lack of discernable smoke coming from the train’s funnel, despite the fact that the train is presumably at speed, and the air must have quite high humidity (as it’s raining). This combination would normally give rise to give a good cloud of smoke. I can only conclude that this must be the world’s most environmentally friendly steam locomotive. Or Turner decided not to include the smoke. Or he forgot. There are a couple of wisps of something smoke-like but it’s hard to tell if that’s what it is, or if it’s more rain. In any case, there’s certainly not enough.

Another factor which helps explain the odd look of the train (though not the absence of any apparent combustion), is that many contemporary artists drawing or painting early railways had real trouble depicting trains accurately. Strange things often go on with wheels or chimneys in such pictures. It’s as though the technology is so new that no-one has really been able to get their head round how to accurately depict it. Artists had had a lot of time to get the knack of reproducing the appearance of buildings, boats, and landscapes, but railways were something new. And difficult.

Here’s a typical example – to judge by the height of the person in the foreground, this looks more like broad gauge than the standard gauge it actually would have been. Wheels are another problem here, lacking axles or indeed any means of physical connection to the bodies of the carriages (though at least Pyall has included some smoke coming from the locomotive’s funnel to show that it is actually doing something).

Henry Pyall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
View of the Railway across Chat Moss (1831-1833), by Henry Pyall (1795-1833) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So, wheels were a real problem in early railway illustration. Turner’s old nemesis comes back to haunt him in Rain, Steam and Speed. Here’s a detail of the wheels in his painting.

Wheel detail
Detail from Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) by J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Again, it’s not entirely clear how these wheels attach to the carriages, or even if all of them are actually on the tracks.

There is one final point to draw your attention to, and something of which I was completely ignorant until I did the research for this entry. There is a hare running ahead of the train:

Detail from Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) by J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Detail from Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) by J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you can’t find it in the original, it’s between the tracks in front of the train, level with the boat. What I had mistaken for part of the overall ’emotion’ (or blobbiness if you prefer) of the foreground is actually a hare (I’ve added an arrow for other philistines like me who would otherwise have trouble finding it). There are various theories about what the hare represents, including the idea that technology is about to vanquish the limitations of nature (in which a hare is as fast as anything else in Britain before the arrival of the railways) or that it is about to squash it flat in a now-look-what-this-new-technology-is-doing-destroying-the-natural-world sort of way.

It’s one of the most famous transport paintings in the world. Is it one of the best? I will leave you to decide…

Further Reading

If you want to read a proper dissection of Rain, Steam and Speed (written from an art point-of-view rather than a transport point-of-view, by someone who doesn’t really mind whether the train wheels are accurate technical representations) then I like this one: as it picks up several details I still can’t really make out for certain.

The National Gallery’s page on the painting is here:

6 thoughts on “So Fast, it’s Just a Blur (Rain, Steam and Speed, by J.M.W.Turner)

  1. The advent of the railways influenced much of art, literature and design at the time; from the French naturalists writing in the 1870s to 1890s (Zola, Balzac), to the Art Deco movement into the 1930s. And it’s little wonder. For the first time ever, speed and the machine were bringing the exotic and the experience of other to the ordinary person.

    1. Yes, it’s fascinating that back then, railways were considered a legitimate artistic subject (I’m hoping to look at Monet’s and Lowry’s railway paintings sometime), in a way they no longer are. I’d not really thought of the fact that they brought the exotic experience to the ordinary person as a reason for that, but I think you’re right. Art does tend to reflect current societal trends – cameras/surveillance are a recurring theme in many contemporary art installations. It was a circular process too – the railways drove the industrial revolution, which allowed the mass production of goods, including artistic products, and that mass production art was then re-applied to transport in places like Paris, where Guimard’s Metro entrances were only practical because of their affordable replicability. You’ve got me thinking now…thanks!

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